Review: NELL GWYNN at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Review: NELL GWYNN at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Pictured: Scarlett Strallen. Photo by Liz Lauren.

By Elizabeth Ellis

The 17th-century eponymous heroine of Jessica Swale’s rollicking NELL GWYNN lived a short yet remarkable life. A low-born woman and a prostitute, Nell was one of the first women to perform on the London stage after Charles II had been restored to the throne and reopened theatres that had been shuttered for eight years under the protectorate rule of the Cromwells. Charles also permits women to act onstage, breaking a long-held tradition of all-male casts. Nell caught the eye of Charles with her beauty and comedic gifts, and eventually became one of his favorite long-term mistresses, bearing him two sons. Swale has taken Nell’s fascinating story and infused it with playful verbal sparring, sly topical asides and a sense of fun and adventure. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater production pairs this rags-to-Restoration-riches story with stunning visuals, and while it only scratches the surface of the characters and their relationships, NELL GWYNN provides a humorous and saucy visit back to one of the great eras of English language theatre.

NELL GWYNN brings to mind two films with similar quasi-feminist protagonists. The tale of the man of wealth and privilege lifting a young plucky hooker out of her station in life echoes Pretty Woman; the golden girl who stakes her claim to the English stage sounds like Shakespeare in Love. The struggling Nell — played with charming exuberance by Scarlett Strallen — sells oranges and more outside the King’s Company, and delights in heckling the performers. One of the company’s actors, Charles Hart (the grand and suave John Tufts), notices Nell and her personality and invites her to be one of the first women allowed to perform onstage. Hart’s colleague, writer John Dryden (the dweeby Christopher Sheard) agrees, but the actor most famous for his uncanny portrayals of women, Edward Kynaston (the marvelous David Bedella) feels shunted to the side. Hart teaches Nell the “attitudes” of ye olde time presentational acting, but this artifice doesn’t diminish Nell’s onstage charisma. Nell enjoys success and has support from her sister Rose (the excellent Emma Ladji) and her dresser, Nancy (Natalie West, whose brilliant comic timing improves every production she’s in).

When Charles II (Timothy Edward Kane, simultaneously droll and sexy), a great supporter of the arts, comes to a play one night, he is immediately taken with Nell, and soon invites her back to live at the palace. Nell has to contend not only with the ire of Queen Catherine (the furious Hollis Resnik) but distaste from Charles’ chief minister, Arlington (the wonderful Larry Yando, dry as a Beefeater martini). Competition for Charles’ affections also arises from more than one of his legion of mistresses, including first the beautiful Lady Castlemaine, then the silky French diplomat’s wife Louise de Keroualle (both played by the elegant Emily Gardner Xu Hall), who Arlington brings in to try to bully Nell and make her decide between her growing love for the King, and her established love of the theatre. The pressure on Nell becomes evident through a vicious attack on Rose, which Nell discovers when Rose and their mother, drunken bawdy house-running Old Ma (Resnik again) visit her in Charles’ apartments. Nell and Charles enjoy a happy relationship, which ends when Charles suffers a fatal stroke while he and Nell are playing croquet. Nell returns to the bosom of the theatre to perform in Dryden’s latest play, Tyrannick Love, and while she turns over the lead role to her colleague Kynaston, she writes and performs the final speech that ends both Dryden’s play and this one.

Director Christopher Luscombe keeps both the dramatic action and musical numbers moving at a fast but not breakneck pace. Both the magnificent gilded set and extravagantly beautiful costumes by Hugh Durrant offer a glimpse of the glory and grandeur of the Restoration. Nigel Hess contributes upbeat music that honors both the traditions of the period and modern musical theater.

While we don’t learn anything revelatory about Nell nor her relationship with the sovereign, we see a woman who made the best of what limited offerings she had, ultimately capturing Charles’ heart. This visit back to Bridges Street and Pall Mall is a light, playful, and beautiful confection.

NELL GWYNN runs through November 4. For more information visit chicagoshakes.com.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.

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