Compleat Female Stage Beauty recalls theatrical battle of the sexes

A battle of the sexes: Katie Kaufmann, Wade A. Vaughn, Duncan Frost
Dan Norman

There's always a danger in putting moments from a classic play in your own work. I'm sure the last thing playwright Jeffrey Hatcher wants while audiences watch Compleat Female Stage Beauty is for the production of Othello he inserts into the action to seem more interesting than his own play.

Thankfully, Hatcher's work and the Walking Shadow Theatre Company production overcome those feelings early and present a solid look into theater history, right at the moment when women were finally allowed to act on the English stage.

In heady Restoration London, two decades of Puritan rule have been swept aside with an explosion of art and culture, including at the theater, where actors tread the boards once again. Yet it is only actors on the stage; actresses are not allowed. Hatcher's play centers on one of those actors, Edward Kynaston, a show-stopping beauty who is on top of the world.

It wouldn't be much of a play if he stayed that way, and the arrival of Margaret Hughes onstage marks the start of Kynaston's downfall, aided by his own ego and anger. He is quickly drawn into political and social games that stretch all the way to King Charles II and his court.

The 1999 play was turned into the film Stage Beauty, and there are times that the script — even in a revised state created especially for this local debut — feels a lot like a screenplay in waiting. Director John Heimbuch keeps the scene-shifting to a minimum, while a jaunty three-piece band helps to keep the energy flowing even when the stage is dark.

The play has a lot on its plate: the rise of realistic acting, gay and straight lovemaking, 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys. The story is jam-packed with ideas that could be broken off and explored on their own. The narrative energy keeps it all moving forward, but there are moments that would have been worth delving into deeper.

That doesn't mean the performers don't have a lot of juicy material. The company is led by Wade A. Vaughn, who gives an absolutely terrific performance as Kynaston. Vaughn is asked to build layer upon layer for his character, never fully unveiling him until the end, when he has lost nearly everything and, in a strange, method-acting way, is finally ready to truly act his heart out.

With all those layers — at one point Vaughn is asked to play a man who is playing a woman disguised as a man — it would be easy enough to reduce the role to simple gestures and vocal ticks. Instead, Vaughn fully inhabits all sides of the character, creating an epic journey for Kynaston that is rich and satisfying.

Our main character needs rivals, enemies, and allies, and the play provides those in spades. There are a number of strong performances here, from Matt Sciple's jaunty, always-observant Samuel Pepys (it was his diary that first sparked the play) to Erik Hoover's somewhat clueless King Charles II to Duncan Frost's cruel and conniving Sir Charles Sedley.

It's eventually the women in Kynaston's life who create the biggest changes, and this charge is led by Teresa Marie Doran as seamstress-turned-actress Maria and by Jane Froiland as the first "real" stage beauty, Margaret Hughes. The pair doesn't get nearly as much time as Vaughn — Froiland disappears for large stretches in the second act — but they craft characters that live and breathe even when they're not in the scene. The final run-through of the climax of Othello, with Kynaston and Hughes finally letting go of their layers to dive into the play-within-the-play, proves to be a real test of actors' talents — a test they pass with flying colors.

What we have is a play rich in the gaudy excesses of the age. Think of the DayGlo 1960s, when the shackles of the gray postwar years were released and people were allowed to go more than a little mad. Now magnify that by 100. The explosions in culture, art, fashion, and more base pursuits all find their place in Compleat Female Stage Beauty, reminding us that the Baby Boomers didn't discover sex, and theater is a constantly evolving game that remains the same at its heart.

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