By ANNA ROSENSWEIG
“A woman playing a woman. What’s the trick in that?” So wonders Edward Kynaston, a star of the London stage in the 1660s most renowned for his skill playing female roles. Kynaston has good reason to cast aspersions on the idea of women playing women, as his fame and fortune threaten to wane when women begin to appear on stage in Restoration England, taking over such celebrated roles as Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello. Set in this extraordinary moment of theater history, Compleat Female Stage Beauty explores what happens – both onstage and off – to men who play women when women can play women. Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, the play brings this historical moment to life, and underscores its resonances with contemporary questions of gender-bending and role-playing.
In Walking Shadow’s production (on which Hatcher consulted), it’s Wade A. Vaughn’s portrayal of Kynaston that really stands out. Vaughn embodies this fascinating character with a complexity that is nothing short of remarkable. Navigating several layers of performance, Vaughn must play Kynaston on stage as Desdemona, Kynaston in drag in St. James Park, and Kynaston as a fallen star attempting to re-fashion his persona. Vaughn succeeds at every level, often with staggering amounts of emotional depth and complexity.
This production’s other strengths are the absolutely gorgeous design elements. Rob Jensen’s set is deceptively simple, allowing for a kind of porosity between the characters’ on-stage performances and their various off-stage personas. Katherine B. Kohl’s costumes are sumptuous delightful. And finally, W.M.P Healy’s lighting design is stunningly beautiful, especially in the second act. It should not go without saying that the original lighting concept was devised by the late Jenny DeGollier, who passed away suddenly in April, and to whom the production is dedicated.
Despite its many successful elements, Walking Shadow’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty unfortunately just doesn’t coalesce. Perhaps this is because many of the performances are one-dimensional, tending toward some sort of exaggerated historical impersonation. Still, regardless of its muted pathos overall, there’s much to enjoy about this production, especially for those interested in theater history, as well as for those fascinated by the ways in which our professional and personal personas overlap – or not.
Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher. Directed by John Heimbuch. Presented by the Walking Shadow Theatre Company. May 18 – June 2, 2012 at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage, 711 W Franklin Ave., Minneapolis. Tickets $22/15. Reservations: www.brownpapertickets.com. More information: www.walkingshadowcompany.org.