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Nell Gwynn ~ Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 13, 2019 

For Playwright Jessica Swale, who cleverly mixes factual events with a lively imagination, Nell Gwynn (Alison Luff), the orange seller who rose from her mother’s Coal Pan Alley brothel to become King Charles II’s most adored paramour, is the perfect vehicle to celebrate the rise of women’s roles in the theater.  Swale, who was named “10 Brits to Watch for 2019” by Variety, earned an Olivier Award for “Best New Comedy” for the play when it debuted in London’s West End in 2016.  “The rags-to-riches story of Nell Gwynn is an important and timely one,” says Director Robert Richmond.  “Her tenacity, wit and honesty changed the theatrical landscape forever and won her a place in history.”

Nell Gwynn (Alison Luff) with musicians left to right: Zoe Speas and Kevin Collins. Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography

Set during the Restoration period when men played women’s roles – early drag, you might say – it was a time when theaters were filled with a mix of royals, rowdy-dows and drunkards.  Shakespeare cast men in women’s roles and that was the way of theater in the 17th century.  That is until King Charles II declared women could be on the stage.

King Charles II (R.J. Foster, left) consults with Lord Arlington (Jeff Keogh) on matters of the court. Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography

Fact: Discovered on Drury Lane by leading British actor, Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen), Gwynn proved to be a natural on the stage where her feisty, street-wise manner won over audiences.

Hart becomes Gwynn’s Pygmalion and lover, teaching her what he calls “the attitudes” – fear, terror, despair and desire.  She does so well that she usurps one of the principal actors in the King’s troupe, Edward Kynaston (Christopher Dinolfo), who must now sacrifice all the female parts to her. “A woman on the stage!  It will be the death of theater!” he cries out.  There is a delightfully bawdy bit when she shows off her acting chops by demonstrating the use of a fan to lure a lover.

Rose Gwynn (Caitlin Cisco, left) shares a somber moment with her sister Nell (Alison Luff). Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography

Gwynn soon comes to the attention of King Charles (R. J. Foster), who had a revolving door of glamorous mistresses who make their appearances along with the cuckolded Queen Catherine (Zoe Speas). Some of these women were well-known at court – Lady Castlemaine and Louise de Keroualle both played ladies by Regina Aquino.  Foster is mesmerizing as the vainglorious king who prefers women to edicts or wars.  He is the perfect foil for Ruff.

The sly Lord Arlington (Jeff Keogh), who has the most influence on the King and his courtesans, is determined to keep them at bay in order to maintain his power in the court.  Remember the famed poet and dramatist, John Dryden (Michael Glenn), from your English Lit classes?  Here he is portrayed as a bumbling, foppish playwright who takes direction from the actors.

The King’s Company in performance (left to right: Caitlin Cisco, Quinn Franzen, Christopher Dinolfo). Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography

There are so many funny bits.  Dinolfo as Camille re-enacting his memory of an oak door in order to create a back story to a scene; Catherine Flye as Nancy, the terrified wardrobe mistress flung onto the stage when Nell quits in a huff; and, of course, Luff, who will rob you of any sense of decorum with her charm and comic timing.  Wait for the over-the-top hat scene mocking Louise de Kéroualle in Act Two.

A delicious royal romp!

With Nigel Gore as Thomas Killigrew; Caitlin Cisco as Rose Gwynn; Kevin Collins as Musician; and Alex Mitchell as Ned Spigett.

Original Music by Kim Sherman, Scenic Design by Tony Cisek, Costume Design by Mariah Anzaldo Hale, and Lighting Design by Andrew F. Griffin.

Through March 10th at the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.   For tickets and information call 202 544-7077 or visit www.Folger.edu/theatre.

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