"What we do is what we are," says the Duke of Buckingham (Robert Campbell) to the actor, and his lover, Edward Kynaston (Thomas Gorrebeeck) in the second act of Compleat Female Stage Beauty, now through February 20, 2011, at City Lights Theater Company in San Jose. Kynaston's life has just come crashing down around him. Once a leading light of the English Restoration stage, Kynaston is now an unemployable pariah. The reason for his catastrophic reversal of fortune? King Charles II (George Psarras) has made the one thing Kynaston is good at, playing the roles of women, illegal.
On its surface, Jeffrey Hatcher's 1999 play, which was made into a movie in 2004, is a study of gender traps, human sexuality and the ways of the theater. More broadly, though, it's also about the work all of us perform, and how that work defines us. Kynaston, who like many of the characters in Hatcher's play is based on a historical figure, cannot adjust his skills to the changing times. He's like, oh, I don't know, a theater critic in the age of Artsopolis and Yelp -- he may or may not be good at what he does, but there are definitely fewer people willing to pay him for his services.
There is much to admire in this production, from the costumes by Erin Haney to the set by Ron Gasparinetti. City Lights often does a great job of filling its wide space with multiple levels and lots of entrances and exits for its actors. The production values of this show, with a grand four-poster bed as its centerpiece, are especially good.
The King (George Psarras) and his mistress
As for the players, Tom Gough is terrific as the actor and producer Thomas Betterton, who does a roaring and enraged Othello to Kynaston's mincing and spineless Desdemona. Jonathan Shue shines as both the bubbly Samuel Pepys, who captured the events of the Restoration and much of the action in Stage Beauty in his famous diary, and Hyde, the King's sourpuss gatekeeper. Dale Albright is a stitch as the pervy and pompous Sir Charles Sedley, a vengeful letch whose commanding presence is undermined by the comical lisp that spills from his lips every time they part. And George Psarras elevates the relatively minor role of King Charles to scene-stealing heights.
But it's the women of this production who really capture our attention, which seems fitting given the play's subject. Kate McGrath brings depth and honesty to Maria (pronounced with a long "i"), a woman who's frustrated by her secret longing to be an actor, as well as her poorly disguised desire to be something more to Kynaston than his attentive dresser. Therese Schneck is an absolute pistol as the Cockney urchin Nell Gwynn, who controls the king with her experienced tongue. And Robyn Winslow does a fine job as Margaret Hughes, the talentless usurper of Kynaston's crown. I especially appreciated Winslow's willingness to show us how much damage has been done to Hughes's craft because of her adoration for Kynaston, whose portrayals of women are beyond cliché.
Kynaston (Thomas Gorrebeeck) and Maria (Kate McGrath)
Less convincing is Gorrebeeck. While his character's arc is memorable, nothing in Gorrebeeck's performance prepares us for the transformation that results when Kynaston finally trades his rouge for boot black. In fairness, I suppose, to Gorrebeeck and his director, Amanda Folena, Hatcher does not give Kynaston many opportunities to show us much more than flouncy ego and stoic pride. But too often, Gorrebeeck chooses to portray a man withdrawing upon himself in the face of changing circumstances, alienating our sympathies for his character in the process. And in the scene where he struggles with his abilities as an actor in a private performance for the King, Nell and the rest of the palace rabble, would that we had been given even a glimpse of an angry Moor.
Compleat Female Stage Beauty runs through February 20, 2011 at City Lights Theater Company in San Jose. For tickets and information visit cltc.org.
All photos by Kit Wilder.