REVIEW: Shoestring Players Strut Their Stuff in ‘Compleat Female Stage Beauty’

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Brandon Mimnaugh and Howie Jordan in “Compleat Female Stage Beauty.”

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

When Howie Jordan as the titular star of “Compleat Female Stage Beauty” says, “Theatre people don’t see plays for fun,” he (and she) grossly misjudged his audience, for this clever Jeffrey Hatcher dark comedy is a bloody – if not bawdy  –  good time.

This USC-Upstate season opener directed by Jimm Cox is an ambitious period dramedy set in Restoration England in the 1660’s. And it is inspired by true events.

Jordan’s Edward Kynaston is the toast of London. The theatres have been re-opened after 18 years by England’s new progressive ruler, King Charles II (a jolly Gabriel Troski) and Shakespeare ‑ dead for a half-century ‑ is still all the rage in the West End.

Kynaston is the RuPaul on Broadway of her day, playing Shakespearean and Greek tragic heroines. And his Desdemona is to die for, literally. Jordan’s Kynaston’s grandstanding is gloriously parsed with more melodrama than a Friday cliffhanger of “The Young and the Restless.”

He milks the death by pillow for minutes and even breaks character with his Othello co-star Thomas Betterton (played by a dashing and effective Carter Baran) for a mid-scene bow to an adoring crowd that can’t get enough at Scenic Designer Barry Whitfield’s full-scale theatre-within-a-theatre.

Jordan, who also donned drag incognito in last season’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” is in nearly every scene and gingerly balances the male and female roles without descending into camp, even in the play-within-the-play segments. He is particularly convincing and confident when his character tutors Miss Hughes and demonstrates his genuine acting ability and professionalism.

He even has a royal benefactor and lover – Brandon Mimnaugh as the closeted Villars, Duke of Buckingham, in a wistful an witty turn. Yes, life in the theatre is good for Kynaston, both on and backstage.

But with twice the shade of Eve Carrington in “All About Eve,” a female actress Margaret Hughes (played by Savannah Hall ever gracefully and with dramatic and comedic humility) copies his Desdemona at a rival theatre ‑ and very badly. And though women are banned from the stage, Hughes is selling out shows.

And when King Charles II decrees ‑ with a nudge from the devilishly-delightful Lindsay Rhode in a firm Cockney accent as his street-wise mistress Nell Gwynn – that drag is no longer legal on London stages, Kynaston becomes box office poison overnight, and unemployed, not unlike dozens of other former “female” bit players.

Unable to perform convincingly in male roles, he is exiled to singing tawdry songs in dubious music halls such as the one run by the wench Mistress Revels (an impressive an animated Brigitte Staggs). I was reminded in this scene of superstar Divine, who spent the last few years of his career attempting in vain to be taken seriously as an actor in male parts.

Equally compelling is enchanting Chantel Brown as his dresser and ingénue who longs to be an actress herself and have “private” lessons with her idol.  She shines in a hysterical death scene as well, flinging herself on and off the bed acting both the Othello and Desdemona parts.

There are a slew of other great performances in this show such as a commanding John Gibbs in a refined English accent as the narrator Samuel Pepys, whose prized diary was the source for this play; Jason Ventura as the pompous Sir Charles Sedley, who is the catalyst for Kynaston’s downfall; and as the aristocrats Lady Meresvale and Miss Frayne, the merry Lauren McGaha and Eva Grayson lend these parts layers of raucous splendor like the Silly Girls in “Beauty and the Beast.”

The cast also includes Shoestring veteran Doug Yates, Najee Joyner, Quenton Lyles, Colin Miller, Candace Owens, Isabelle Scanlon, Jillian Wain, Kacy Winterhalter, Dexter Simmons and Aaron Nathanson.

There are vulgar, often misogynistic, moments that may be disheartening to some, but only slightly more shocking than the 3 a.m. musings of a certain current presidential candidate.

More interesting is Kynaston’s dynamic relationship with Villars; Mimnaugh’s confession that his love only burns when Jordan’s Kynaston is a woman provides one of the most intimate and boldly-acted scenes in the play.

There were some nervous jitters on opening night with some dropsies and wardrobe malfunctions, (not the Janet Jackson kind) but this play is lavish, well-crafted, and a completely entertaining production for both theatre people and patrons.

Technically and visually “Compleat Female Stage Beauty” is stunning as well: the two-story theater set replete with foot light sconces and balconies, Whitfield’s and Jennifer Latto’s costumes, the period wigs for the entire cast, and Rich Robinson’s make-up and lighting. Julia Jones serves as stage manager and Deana Neibert is dialogue coach for this run.

Hatcher also wrote the romanticized screenplay adaptation entitled “Stage Beauty” with Billy Crudup and Claire Danes, whose character is a composite of both Maria and Margaret Hughes and focuses more on her relationship with Kynaston.

Sorry folks, this one is not for kids. Youth 16 years and older should be fine.

“Compleat Female Stage Beauty” continues Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at USC Upstate Performing Arts Center, 800 University Way in Spartanburg. Call (864) 503-5695 or email boxoffice@uscupstate.edu

And next up for the Shoestring Players is Woody Allen’s “Don’t Drink the Water” Nov. 10-13.

 

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