Review: PLAYHOUSE CREATURES at Burbage Theatre Company

This thought-provoking production runs through February 25th

By: Feb. 09, 2024
Review: PLAYHOUSE CREATURES at Burbage Theatre Company
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After last season’s splendid ‘The Oldest Profession,’ Burbage Theatre Company and WomensWork Theatre Collaborative join forces again for ‘Playhouse Creatures,’ April De Angelis’s fascinating portrait of five females from late 17th-century England who were able to pursue careers on stage after King Charles II overturned the Puritan law that previously forbid them from doing so.

These five illustrious ladies are based on real-life women from the era. Mrs. Betterton (Paula Faber) is the stoic, renowned stage veteran, married to the owner of the Playhouse and unable to shine outside her husband’s shadow. The feisty Mrs. Marshall (Rae Mancini) tries with all her might to escape the mistakes of a malicious man from her past. Mrs. Farley (Autumn Jefferson), the seemingly iron-willed daughter of a preacher, proudly and successfully reinvents herself on the stage, until her actions have an opposite effect. The unashamedly ambitious Nell Gwynn (Lorraine Guerra) undergoes a Pygmalion-esque transformation that attracts the King’s attention–and affection.

Their story is told by Doll (Lynne Collinson), the eldest and arguably most sensible of the bunch, who used to live in the performance space with her father when it was a bear pit. Doll tends after the other actresses, much like a grandmother offering advice, providing protection, and imparting wisdom–usually in the form of brutal honesty. While these women were undoubtedly pioneers, they still exist in a patriarchy where Doll harshly reminds them that their status is no better than that of a trained circus animal.

Directed stylishly and perceptively by MJ Daly, the stage action comprises snippets of backstage banter, compelling character monologues, and scenes from recent Playhouse productions (Shakespeare is understandably a popular choice), interspersed with modern music from today’s sirens of song, like Mary J. Blige and Florence & The Machine. Riley Nedder’s costumes are impeccable, complete with corsets and petticoats that perfectly accentuate the Restoration period. Trevor Elliott’s understated, minimalist set fittingly places focus on the actresses and the friendship (and inevitable rivalry) that befalls them.

De Angelis’s script, while mostly engaging, also feels somewhat incomplete, but its shortcomings are easily remedied by the performances from this assemblage of acting powerhouses. Jefferson’s portrayal of Mrs. Farley, the most tragic figure of the ensemble, is particularly haunting, and Guerra shines brightly and seductively as Nell. Faber’s delivery as Mrs. Betterton is calm yet intense, and Mancini is a delightful combination of allure and angst.

Whether she’s emptying the ‘piss pot,’ cleaning their costumes, or spouting candid commentary, Collinson steals the show with her brilliant, brazen performance as Doll. The play has its share of amusing moments, yet the undertone is expressly bleak, and Doll’s presence provides much needed comic relief–and an important lesson for women then and now.

‘Playhouse Creatures’ is an intriguing examination of society’s treatment of female entertainers from many centuries ago and asks the audience to consider how much has really changed for them.

Playhouse Creatures runs through February 25 at Burbage Theatre Company, 59 Blackstone Avenue in Pawtucket, RI. For tickets and information, call 401-484-0355 or visit https://www.burbagetheatre.org/

Pictured (L-R): Lynne Collinson, Paula Faber, Autumn Jefferson, and Rae Mancini; Photo by Andrew Iacovell




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