At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago-There are numerous good reasons to attend “Nell Gwynn” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The musical play is funny, sumptuously staged, filled with entertaining characters, and enhanced by witty songs. But there is only one essential reason for seeing the show, the performance by Scarlett Strallen in the title role.
The play by Jessica Swale opened in London in 2015 and was a considerable success as a biography of sorts about Nell Gwynn, an actual historical figure who rose from the brothels and slums of London to become a darling of the English stage and the mistress of King Charles II. As a teenager Nell sold oranges to playgoers outside the Drury Lane Theatre. She caught the eye of Charles Hart, a leading London actor who was impressed by her sharp wit and her possibilities as a stage performer.
At the time, the ban on women on the English stage had just been lifted (women’s roles had previously been performed by men). Under Hart’s mentorship, Nell showed considerable promise as a performer, her rise assisted by her quick wit and her enormous sex appeal. In short order, Nell attracted the attention of the king, newly installed on the throne after 10 years of rule by a puritanical non-royal government. Charles II returned, and immediately became the figurehead for the ostentatiously licentious lifestyle now known as the Restoration.
As the king’s mistress (Charles had a very large stable of them), Nell became a national celebrity, and in the play she was a voice for women’s rights, a radical view in the thoroughly man’s world of 17th century England. As an actress, Nell demanded more realistic portrayals of women by playwrights, arguing to famous dramatist John Dryden “We’re as knotty and tangly as you are.” Nell may have primarily been a sexual being, but she had a mind of her own, ruffling many masculine feathers.
“Nell Gwynn” touches on feminist matters and also glosses on the religious and political issues of the time, issues that will mean more to modern English audiences which spectators on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. But basically “Nell Gwynn” is about the theater and one of its fascinating stars. Swale writes funny and instructive scenes showing plays in rehearsal, with the attendant ego conflicts, technical demands, and commercial stresses.
The title role is a glorious acting and singing opportunity for a versatile young actress and the CST has cast a winner in Scarlett Strallen, who has a bushel full of solid stage credits in both England and the United States. Strallen certainly meets the physical requirements of the role, sexy and attractive but not vulgar. Strallen’s Nell is charming, saucy, independent, rapier tongued–able to hold her own in spite of her tawdry background and the anti-feminist prejudices build into the English society of the time.
Strallen’s Nell knows her roots and how to manipulate her sexuality to her own advantage. In one song, she confidently announces “I can dance and I can sing/And I can do t’other thing.” Considering the odds stacked against a person of her background in the 17th century, Nell was one of the remarkable women of the age and Strallen brings the character fully home in all her buoyancy and streetwise intelligence and human feeling (her relationship with the king, amazingly enough, became a true love affair).
The CST production is stocked with excellence, both from local actors and imports. Christopher Luscombe directed the original London production, which couldn’t have been any better than the one he has put together on Navy Pier. Luscombe properly plays to the show’s strength in its rollicking humor and focus on the exceptional personality of the title character. He has considerable assistance from the score by Nigel Hess and Amber Mak’s choreography. They have joined to create a high energy show that fits perfectly on the CST thrust stage.
It takes deep pockets to produce a show of this opulence and the CST has dug into its budget and spent the money wisely. Hugh Durrant’s scenic and costume designs richly evoke the luxurious fashions of the day. Props also to Greg Hofmann’s lighting, Stephen Ptacek’s sound design, and the wig and makeup designs by Richard Jarvie. The chamber music group under Jermaine Hill’s direction enhances the period flavor of the evening with its 17th century-flavored Hess score.
Strallen is brilliant but she has plenty of help. Timothy Edward Kane is a splendid Charles II, a man with large physical appetites who also must defend his throne against conflicting Roman Catholic and Church of England forces as well threats from other nations. It was a most contentious time for a monarch forced to deal with traumatic memories of his father’s execution only a few years earlier and the pettiness and self interest of court politics. Kane strikes a deft balance between the public and private person under continuous stress.
John Tufts is excellent as Charles Hart, the thespian who takes Nell out of the gutter and tutors her until she ascends into a kind of national heroine. Larry Yando, as always, is terrific, this time as Lord Arrington, the intimidating king’s advisor. Highest marks also go to Bret Tuomi as the manager of Hart’s acting company, David Bedella as ta self-dramatizing female-impersonator actor, and Christopher Sheard as John Dryden, portrayed as a ninny instead of one of the great writers of the age. On the female side, the opening night audience ate up Natalie West as Nell’s wisecracking dresser and friend Nancy. Emma Ladji is fine as Nell’s sister. Hollis Resnik makes a doubly strong impression as the king’s Portuguese wife, infuriated by her husband’s infidelities, and as Nell’s slattern of a mother. Emily Gardner Xu Hall etches out persuasive portraits of two of the king’s mistresses.
Cameo highlights of the production are the appearance of the king’s pet spaniel dog and a line of dialogue with obvious reference to the current president of the United States that brought the house down. It was followed immediately by another quickie line that earned the same delighted response.
As a slice of English history, “Nell Gwynn” doesn’t quite match the recent CST hit “Shakespeare in Love.” But it’s still a grand slice of theater staged and acted to the highest CST standards. If the company ever decides to revive Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” or “As You Like It,” they need look no further than Scarlett Strallen as their Rosalind or Viola. Until that happy time, locals can exult in Strallen’s Nell Gwynn and the spot-on production that surrounds her.
The show gets a rating of
‘Nell Gwynn” runs through November 4 at the Chicago Shakespeare Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier. Tickets are $48 to $88. For the performance schedule, call 312 595 5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. September 2018
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