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Review: Folger Theatre's NELL GWYNN Features Starpower Galore

Review:  Folger Theatre's NELL GWYNN Features Starpower Galore

First, a brief polemic: there are times, dear reader, when your intrepid theatre critic sits at the laptop, head in hands, despairing over the utter cluelessness of his colleagues.

Witness the wittily written and astonishingly-acted production of Jessica Swale's Nell Gwynn, which will grace the Folger Theatre stage well into March. Designed as a vehicle for talented actors, and chock-full of knockout performances, one of my number chose to grouse about Swale's work not measuring up to his expectations.

The performance of Alison Luff in the title role, alone, is nothing short of miraculous; her transformation from a trash-talking orange-monger to a star of the stage is unforgettable, and to neglect this rare gem borders on criminal negligence.

Instead, my esteemed colleague pines away for the good old days of Tom Stoppard's Shakespeare in Love and Jeffrey Hatcher's Stage Beauty, not realizing that it is precisely because Stoppard and Hatcher have already trod this old turf, that Ms. Swale is free to approach the career of Ms. Gwynn-one of the first women to appear on the legitimate British stage in the 1660's-with fresh eyes, and offer her own unique perspective.

He seems to have neglected the interview in the Folger program, in which Swale makes clear the play is an homage to Nell's hard-fought career, not a documentary. Obviously, in order to merit praise, one must anticipate that critic's arbitrary tastes in historical fiction.

Fortunately, dear reader, we can look with our own eyes and delight in the wit and pathos of Swale's Olivier-award-winning work. So, having left my colleague's review adrift in ether where it belongs, let's review the actual show, shall we?


Director Robert Richmond has done Ms. Swale proud, assembling a highly talented cast with a keen sense of comic timing, and makes full use of the entire Folger space. You're taken straight back to the period known as the Restoration, the heady years when England got its royal family back and the theatres reopened after nearly 20 years' absence. It was also a time when you went to a show to be seen, not just to see; gossip columnists needed do little more than attend a matinee to have enough material for a month (Take That, David Pecker).

The 1660's (like the 1960's) was a time of sexual license, but made all the more sweet by the end of Puritan rule. Having endured the Protestant equivalent of the Taliban under Oliver Cromwell for years, everyone was ready to enjoy themselves without Cromwell's secret vice squad throwing them into jail for every nod or wink. The hitch being that in both cases, the 60's are remembered as a time of exclusively male license and increasing female frustration, leading to loud demands that women receive the respect that is their due, onstage and off.

Into this milieu steps Nell Gwynn, of obscure origin but very likely the daughter of a brothel-owner, selling oranges in one of the London's newly-opened theatres. Famous for her ability to put down the rowdies in the audience, Nell catches the eye of the company's lead actor, Charles Hart (played with great, egotistical bravado by Quinn Franzen). Hart, recognizing Gwynn's talent, draws her aside for some training, and with the ban on female actresses lifted, she soon displaces the resident female impersonator, Edward Kynaston (the hilarious, over-the-top Christopher Dinolfo, the drama queen to end all drama queens).

After some hesitation and wild panic, Gwynn becomes a star. The sequence at the end of Act 1, where Luff shows us Nell's transformation from paralyzing stage fright to timid first peeps onstage, to full-blown stardom, is one of the most memorable experiences I have had in many years.

Nell's triumph, however, comes amidst a stiflingly chauvinistic culture that, for all her talent, still regarded her as so much meat on a hook. She is most remembered today for being the longtime lover of King Charles II-played here by R. J. Foster, who rules the eye with every entrance. Swale acknowledges the sacrifice that this entailed-Nell Gwynn became estranged from both family and theatre company alike-but rather than wallow in self-pity, Swale chooses to show us how Gwynn survived her affair and remained a star.

There isn't a single supporting role here that was neglected or left underdone; so I have the unfortunate task of only selecting a few among the company, with the understanding that all were outstanding: DC veteran Catherine Flye positively revels in the twin roles of Nancy, the backstage dresser, and Ma Gwynn, whom Nell sadly neglects; Caitlin Cisco, as Nell's sister Rose, offers a quiet but powerful counterpoint in this family threesome. As the play's responsible elders, Nigel Gore and Jeff Keogh square off as company manager Thomas Killegrew and Lord Arlington respectively. The generation gap is never so gaping as when these two try to rein in their younger, more worldly charges. And Alex Michell's turn as Ned Spigget is priceless-without a word he can have you in stitches.

Composer Kim Sherman provides us with lush musical motifs in which the cello figures prominently-a nice touch, given the vogue for the viol da gamba during this period. Tony Cisek's scenic design is equally rich, with burgundy velvet curtains to remind us that the action takes place in King Charles II's own theatre, complete with a finely-embossed royal box above. Andrew W. Griffin's lighting, meanwhile, not only offers the traditional switch from scene to scene, but throws blue onto burgundy, creating an equally rich, royal purple.

Mariah Anzaldo Hale's costumes are a study in historical fashion, a delight for the eye; the only odd detail here is the decision to put Gwynn in knee-breeches-traditional male dress of the time-without so much as a word. Women of the period wore full-length skirts, as if they had no legs at all, while the men sported knee-breeches and showed off their legs to advantage 24/7. The fact that putting an actress in knee-breeches was the next best thing to pornography, and was hardly as liberating as it might seem, goes unremarked. This is a missed opportunity if there ever was one, given that Swale reminds us how powerless actresses like Gwynn were to preserve their integrity.

Richmond's production is a joyful visit to our theatrical past, and it is so brilliantly crafted it would be a crime to miss it-get thee to the Folger, make haste.

Production Photo: Allison Luff as Nell Gwynn. Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

Performances of Nell Gwynn run through March 10 at the Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol Street SE, Washington, DC. For tickets call 202-544-7077, or visit:

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