Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Swale wrote Nell Gwynn as a commission for Shakespeare's Globe in London; the Folger production is its U.S. East Coast premiere. Here is another case of allowing a notable woman to tell her own story: people who know the name only as a royal mistress don't realize that Nell was a pioneer, one of the first women to perform on the British stage, and she accomplished that through talent and bravery.
First, a bit of historical background. Charles II (R.J. Foster) went into exile in Europe following the execution of his father, Charles I, in 1649. After the death of the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell, he returned to take the throne. Theaters, which had been shut down during Puritan rule, reopened and the king issued a royal decree requiring that, for the first time, women ("actor-esses") play female roles onstage.
Director Robert Richmond has a fluid command of Swale's dialogue and keeps the action flowing among a succession of scenes. At the beginning of the play, Nell is an orange seller in the theater of the King's Men. After seeing Nell take on an audience member who insults one of the actors during a performance, lead actor Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen) finds her captivating and invites her to join the troupe. Edward Kynaston (Christopher Dinolfo), a famed performer of women's roles, is dismissive that any actual woman could play those roles as well as he, but Nell soon proves herself.
Luff sparkles throughout the play as Nell navigates the tricky currents of theatrical success and royal attention. Having come from a squalid backgroundher mother (Catherine Flye) kept a brothelshe understands compromise and taking care of herself. She questions the company's playwright, John Dryden (Michael Glenn), about character motivation and suggests that real women are capable of more nuanced characterizations than men playing women.
Foster brings extensive detail to his portrayal of the "merry monarch" derided in his own time as indecisive and shallow ("Maybe my legacy will be one of indecision. Maybe," he says). Charles loves art and beauty, including many women, but he understands how Nell's outspokenness sets her apart from the flatterers and influence-seekers. Dinolfo is amusing as an actor who never breaks character and Franzen presents Hart as a man who knows, and admires, talent when he sees it.
Tony Cisek's scenic design uses red brocade curtains and elegant furniture to convey a series of onstage and offstage locations. Costume designer Mariah Anzaldo Hale has created an expansive palette of fine dress for the royal court, elaborate stage costumes (including one memorable hat), and the rougher clothes for the lower classes.