About 20 minutes into Nell Gwynn, the American premiere of Jessica Swale’s comedy now on at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, it’s possible to wonder just exactly what we’re all doing here. This story (directed by Christopher Luscombe) of a 17th-century waif who becomes an actress who becomes a mistress to King Charles II initially lacks any real dramatic momentum. Busy selling her oranges (not a euphemism) to audiences at the local theater, her wit and sharp comebacks get her noticed by one of the main actors, who—for some reason—offers her acting lessons.
This serendipitous connection comes just as the rules of the stage are changing, allowing women to grace the boards and play the female roles themselves. Nell (the energetic and winsome Scarlett Strallen, in her CST debut) soon becomes the leading lady of the West End, drawing in sell-out crowds. The king himself (Timothy Edward Kane) catches one of her performances, wasting no time in visiting Nell in her dressing room and propositioning her. And just like that, she’s climbed to the top of the Restoration Era social ladder, as it were, mistress to the King.
The stakes rise by Act II, when Nell is confronted with some difficult decisions, including whether she’ll choose the theater troupe who took her in over the monarch who’s smitten with her, and how to respond when her prime role as preferred mistress is challenged by a young French ingenue. Through it all, there’s a thrust of a feminist mindset, and the show’s boldest moments come when Nell pushes playwright and players alike to create female characters of depth and nuance. “Write me a character with skin, and heart, and some sense in her head!” she insists. Hear, hear!
Perhaps it’s CST’s bad luck, then, that Nell Gwynn opens just as the country reels from testimony by a sexual assault survivor and more than a year into the #MeToo movement. Under different circumstances, Nell’s optimistic brand of feminism would be downright laudable. Instead, it plays as a bit of a Disney-fied version of the fight women are actually in at this very moment for their autonomy and equality. This is not anyone’s fault, per se, but it does speak to the flimsy nature of Swale’s script. Even a comedy can carry some weight (dare I say the best comedies carry, seemingly effortlessly, quite a bit), and here that additional dimension is nowhere to be found.
There’s a lot of good in Nell Gwynn, a Shakespeare In Love redux such as it is (with a little Pretty Woman thrown in for good measure). CST lives up to its reputation for lush productions, to be sure; there are moments you’ll feel transported, as if you’re there at the Globe in Shakespeare’s day, what with the minstrels in the balcony and all the brocade dripping off the players. Infused with a few fun musical numbers, the show finds its stride when the stage is its most crowded, when the ensemble (including scene-stealer extraordinaire David Bedella as Edward Kynaston, the actor who’d assumed all the female roles until recently) gets a chance to impress us. And there are jokes that land quite well (and some less so, as an otherwise tame audience responded quite animatedly to what one assumes is a recently added Trump joke), reaching as they do to reference both the past and the present.
Ultimately, however, Nell Gwynn‘s attempt to tell Nell Gwynn’s story from the brothels of Cheapside to the court of King Charles II, compelling as it may be, gets lost somewhere in these particular proceedings. A film version of the story is in development, and one hopes whomever adapts the script manages to find a more substantial angle from which to present it.
Nell Gwynn runs through November 4 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier. Tickets are $48-$88 and available online.
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