I love plays or movies that are about a time in theatrical history. Shakespeare in Love was enthralling. Farinelli was a fascinating and beautifully produced movie about the famous castrato singer Carlo Maria Michaelangelo Nicola Broschi who reigned supreme in the 18th century. Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty is about the end of an era in English theatre when, after the Restoration, women were allowed to act on the stage and the devastating results this change of events had on the most famous portrayer of female roles, Edward Kynaston.
Kynaston was famous for portraying Shakespeare’s tragic ladies: Ophelia, Cleopatra, and especially his Desdemona with the famous death scene. When an unknown actress, Margaret Hughes, plays Desdemona one night at an illegal theatre, it causes a sensation in town and King Charles II arbitrarily decides to pass a law outlawing males playing females. The tradition of males playing female roles went all the way back to Shakespeare so this new direction in the theatre changed it forever.
The play traces Kynaston’s eventual collapse and degradation. He loses everything: his fame, his livelihood, his lover, and most important, his sense of self. He ends up performing in a drag show, his ultimate shame. Unfortunately he had made enemies along the way and is supplanted by the king’s own mistress, a vulgar Nell Gwynn, and even his former dresser, Maria. It is only when Maria tires of her own performance, always remembering Kynaston’s, and Margaret Hughes is hired only to give an horrendous performance, that Kynaston seizes his chance for revenge. He accepts the job of teaching her how to act, specifically the death scene. He takes on himself the role of Othello but his theatrical blood prevents him from getting his revenge and he passes up the chance of actually killing Hughes.
The show is an interesting history lesson. Thanks to the persuasive performance of Ben Rovner as Kynaston, we get to see the inside of this long-gone era. Hatcher is a wonderful writer, able to capture both the tragic and the comic sides of the story. If you have ever acted, the play is a lesson in what our ancestors had to suffer to keep theatre alive. The Compleat Female Stage Beautyis playing at the Crown City Theatre.