Compleat Female Beauty. By Jeffrey Hatcher. Directed by Dave Bisaha. A production of the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre. Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial Hall, University of Pittsburgh Oakland campus. November 8-18.
“Change your life, Neddy, change what you do. What we do is what we are.”
So we hear from the half-naked Duke of Buckingham mid-steam bath as he addresses the great actor Edward “Ned” Kynaston, his once-upon-a-time paramour. It is the Restoration, the great cultural rejection of the eighteen years of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth of England, . For eighteen years public theater performances were forbidden: no actor could take the stage, no lord or lady or common citizen could escape the drudgery of common life with an evening of song and drama. But with the return of the Stuart dynasty, with Charles II returned from France—and we all know how, shall we say, liberal France had been with its attitudes towards what was permitted upon the stage—England was ready to welcome theatre back into the cities. Of course, Charles II returned with decidedly French notions regarding theatrical performances, and soon after his instatement to the throne, London saw its first female actors on the stage. And for actors like Edward Kynaston, who specialized in female roles like Shakespeare’s Juliet and, most emphatically, Desdemona, and whom Samuel Pepys once called “the loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life,” it meant the end of both an era and of his career.
The play Compleat Female Stage Beauty , written by Jeffrey Hatcher and debuted in 1999, wrestles with themes as immense as cultural mores, gender and sexual identity, society’s tolerance of the “deviant,” and the institutional restrictions that we all run into at different times and to varying degrees. Most importantly, and most challengingly, it shows us how a figure as beautiful and as troubled as Edward Kynaston confronts those forces, how he tries and fails and sometimes succeeds in dealing with them. As a period piece, this play is by no means dated, and the entirety of the Pitt Repertory Theatre troupe was, to borrow a British-ism, bang-on with their performances. From the period-appropriate sparsely decorated stage to the detailed costuming to the delightfully fey and foppish Samuel Pepys and Sir Charles Sedley, respectively, Compleat Female Stage Beauty is more uproariously funny and more heartbreaking than you might expect.
As wonderfully crafted as the play itself is, it is impossible to not be taken with the veracity and sincerity with which the players bring these historical figures—our cultural fore-bearers, in many ways—to the intimate setting of the Henry Heymann Theatre. Staged as a full-thrust (i.e. audience seating on three sides of the stage), the performance treats the stage as both the myriad physical locales within the play itself as well as the historical stages upon which Kynaston, his fellow actor Thomas Betterton (Othello to Kynaston’s Desdemona), and the newly-legal-to-act-on-stage Margaret Hughes live and bleed and die. But the real thrill comes with how those boundaries are broken: the trick, you see, is that some among you are part of the show. More than once the play becomes a play within a play (which should be of no surprise to either fans of Shakespeare or Inception) when Kynaston becomes either the Bard’s Desdemona or Jonson’s Epicœne. More than once at those moments there are players in the back rows, off to the sides, who heckle and abuse, and you, the audience member, are now complicit in the scene, no matter how horrific it becomes (and there is much to feel horrified about).
In reviewing this performance, I wanted so much to quibble over little details of historicity with language and the series of events. There are a number of liberties taken with recorded history and with the presumed sexuality of Kynaston, but I was left so pleased and sated that all I care to remember are the brilliant performances. Dylan Meyers as Edward Kynaston was nothing short of screen and West End ready, as were Mike Magliocca (as Thomas Betterton), Mallory Fuccella (as Margaret Hughes), Aric Hudson (as the Duke of Buckingham), and Mike Zolovich (as the Ur-Fop Sir Charles Sedley). The performance from Laura Gray as the theatre seamstress cum actress Maria was gripping. Unfortunately, Maria is given far too brief a role, but she commands every moment she is given. Perhaps the most tensely erotic and personally riveting moment comes when Maria and Kynaston (now banished by a new law from performing as a woman on stage and reduced to singing bawdy songs at the Cockpit-in-Court) engage in a series of clothes-on sexual positions, each punctuated with the pertinent question “Who am I now?” The interplay of personal sexual identity and interpersonal power through sexual expression come to such a peak at that moment that you cannot help but forget about the historical setting. We see this in our own lives still. Who is each of us? How do we find ourselves? What do we do when neither of those are easy answers?
And that is what we want from a good show, is it not? To be taken somewhere we never knew we wanted to find ourselves. If the troupe was not up to the challenge of the nuanced characters and the fragile balance between historical fact and historical truth this performance would have flopped. Thankfully, director Dave Bisaha and the whole of the cast are up to those challenges. What you find on (and around, it turns out) that stage is revivifying. True, it claims a hefty run-time of two hours, twenty minutes, with a single intermission, but the power of the performances across the board will keep you in your seat, still wanting more when the last of the house lights come up.