Elizabeth Farley (McKenna Twedt) is fluffing up her theater costume and trying to sneak it out to “a rendezvous.” That’s a nice way of saying she’s been summoned (to the palace by the king, no less) for sex. But, wait, isn’t she an actress?
April De Angelis’ Playhouse Creatures revisits Restoration England (circa 1660) to depict the lives of the first women to take on the mantel of “actress.” Of course, a big part of that story is that society’s general maltreatment of the female gender bled into that profession in all-too-familiar ways. The first actresses were typecast as high and low class. They were solicited for prostitution. They were suspected of sorcery. They were discarded once pregnant or old. Hundreds of years later, those woes still ring true.
Yet far from wallowing, this play engages, absorbs, and entertains. Twedt deftly rides her character’s rise to fame and fall from grace, evoking first scorn and then pity.
My friend who moved to LA to do comedy has a funny habit: she collects and shares all the casting notices she receives each day to play prostitutes. Rich in comedy and rife with insult and stereotype, these requests are so shockingly common they roll into her phone like a ceaseless tide. “Dead prostitute” may be most popular. “Nonspeaking,” almost equally so. “Unpaid” is the coin of the realm. In Hollywood it seems, if one chose, an actress could silently prostitute herself for no pay several times every day. Dead inside? Even better. That would be “method” for most of the roles.
The modern theater, presumed to be far more sophisticated than the movie biz, is often only moderately better, as demonstrated masterfully by Erin Pike back in 2014’s That’swhatshesaid, a touring solo show featured at Risk/Reward that delivered a mashup of female character descriptions lifted directly from contemporary play scripts. After highlighting laughably common adjectives like “young” and “beautiful,” and showing how almost all female characters are judged along the virgin-whore spectrum, Pike was threatened by “publishing titans” with legal repercussions. Real mature, Guys.
But back to Playhouse Creatures: Mrs. Marshall (Brenan Dwyer) is trying to act in a scene while some guy heckles her from the wings. Later, through pounding on the dressing room door, the same heckler is heard again. He’s her would-be husband, she explains—a nobleman who tricked her into a kind of marriage he doesn’t have to honor. Dwyer spits fire in this role, as the woman who tried to do everything by the book and still got screwed.
At talkback last Sunday at CoHo Theatre, the play’s co-producers Dwyer and Twedt explained why doing this play with an all-female cast was their two-year dream come true. Each confessed that the show had resonated in part because she had experienced and observed sexism as an actress. “We all have stories,” they agreed, and they shared some that didn’t need to leave the room.
And even so, far from complaining, this play poetically rhapsodizes.
Mrs. Betterton (Lorraine Bahr) is dignity personified after decades on the stage. She does a killer Lady MacBeth, and runs a tight ship as co-owner of the Playhouse with her husband. And yet, however gracefully, she must resign herself to a younger woman replacing her in the lead roles opposite her husband who, though he’s her contemporary, is puzzlingly not considered too old for leading man roles.
Meanwhile, Doll Common (Jacklyn Maddux), Mrs. Betterton’s peer in age, has never enjoyed the same access to the stage as Mrs. Betterton despite working at the playhouse alongside her because she’s, well, “common” in terms of social class. Staying within the confines of her role, she cleans up after the actresses and on rare occasion gets to play a corpse or a beggar onstage when they’re shorthanded. Nell Gwyn (Dainichia Noreault), however, isn’t letting her commoner status stand in her way. Relying on her natural “cunning” and willingness to flash a bit of leg, she’s poised to upstage all her predecessors and go down in history.
The way women are still treated in theater makes even less sense when you consider the discipline as a market. Having glimpsed the readership demographics for theater articles at various publications, I can tell you that audience skews decidedly older, educated, and female. So how on earth can the art form still seem to reward youth, silliness, and maleness? Frankly, there’s no reasonable explanation beyond capital-P Patriarchy.
And yet, Bahr performs Mrs. Betterton’s resignation with warmth and glory, and Noreault and Maddux each make a compelling case for their characters’ relative class aspirations.
The need to stay gracious, calm, and subtle when reacting to the sexism you experience is a meta-performance even beyond the initial performance of gender, and god knows it’s particularly exhausting. That may be why all of the actress characters in this play are technically framed as ghosts—the pressure of their profession having “taken it out of them.”
And yet! There’s as much to enjoy in this show as there is to unpack. Part of a conscious effort on CoHo’s part this season to host more femme-centric plays, this one’s an unequivocal triumph, from the stellar casting and acting, to the original score performed live by multi-instrumentalist minstrel Samie Pfeifer haunting the catwalks, to fights conceived by Kristen Mun (whose work in Lydia, onstage now at Milagro, is even more stunning). Even the period costumes earn applause, as alluring by-women-for-women wardrobe-porn.
One surprising takeaway (besides all the feminist grist to chew through) is a new appreciation for the old-world theater forms. When the actresses shift from using natural mannerisms in their dressing room and on the street to performing exaggerated, posed movements onstage, they could easily mock the latter for boffo laughs. And they do a bit, but not completely. However bygone, there was justification for such gesticulating back in the day: A big room. Less lighting. No amplification. The expression of character in such a space becomes part acting, part dance, and all ancient forms from Kabuki to Greek tragedy were likely originally played that way. And for that lingering epiphany, we have director Alana Byington to thank.
Quite post-modernly, Byington at talkback said she saw the actresses as “kind of holograms; they’re in the ghost world; they’re everywhere.”
Indeed. Their struggle still dwells with us today.