Cambria’s Pewter Plough Playhouse highlights a little-known slice of theater history with “Playhouse Creatures,” set in the 17th century.
The play by April DeAngelis is a portrait of four of the first women to act on the British stage. The era is brought to life with fine acting and terrific dialogue as the characters work through comedy and tragedy in their lives.
Previously, women’s roles had been played by men in drag, but when King Charles II had been in exile in France he had seen women onstage, and when he returned to England he changed the rules.
When these pioneering women were allowed onstage they became objects of curiosity, especially for men. They were often considered to be in the same class as tarts or prostitutes—which some of them were, either before or after learning to act.
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The publicity for the play describes it as “bawdy,” and that’s an apt word because it describes the lifestyle of these characters. In vignettes that alternate between onstage and backstage scenes, each woman’s personality comes through as their circumstances play out.
The characters are based on real people, and the performances, directed by Sandy Bosworth, capture the flavor of the time and place with colorful period costumes and even more colorful language. The dialogue is often funny, with the funniest moments containing language that can’t be printed in a family newspaper.
But there are deeper elements at play as well as the women cope with harassment, age discrimination, pregnancy and a move for better pay — things still relevant centuries later. The cast members have honed their British accents, and the witty words flow smoothly.
The focus is on the four actresses, but the fifth woman is the one who holds it all together — and has some of the best lines. Anita Schwaber plays Doll Common, who acts as nanny, maid and assistant, and also serves as narrator part of the time. She’s a natural as she delivers wry and sometimes wise comments on the antics of the actresses. Her body language and comic timing create a memorable character.
The most well-known historic figure is based on Nell Gwynne, who became a mistress of King Charles II. Kristie Siebert plays Nell, selling oranges on the street while finagling a place in the acting company at age 16. Siebert is cute and crafty, just right for the role as she works her way into the theater, and finally into the king’s favor. (There are no men in the play, but their presence is always lurking.)
Jill Garcia plays Nell’s competitor, Elizabeth Farley, who tries to keep Nell out of the theater and expects to make it with the king herself. Garcia is good and sympathetic as she heads downhill from ambition and smugness to pregnancy and prostitution.
Rebecca Marshall is the feminist in the group, enjoying the craft of acting and eager to share in the profits, but she becomes a victim of harassment at a time when men rule the world. Sharyn Young gives her character both strength and vulnerability.
Janice Peters plays Mrs. Betterton, the most passionate about acting. Married to a leading actor, she loses popularity as she ages. Peters is particularly a kick in scenes where she emotes as Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth.
The elegant costumes were a collaboration between Bernadene Morgan, director Bosworth and members of the cast. The functional two-part set was designed by Jim Buckley and built by Art Van Rhyn. Ashley Davis is stage manager.
This is a satisfying adult entertainment, working on several levels. As history, it’s a learning experience, but as a well-written and well-acted play it’s also great fun.