Actress who defied convention gets conventional treatment in ‘Nell Gwynn’

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Nell Gwynn (Scarlett Strallen), one of the first actresses to perform on the stages of London’s burgeoning West End, captures the hearts of audiences — and the king— in Chicago Shakespeare’s North American premiere production of “Nell Gwynn.” | Liz Lauren Photo

The title character of British playwright Jessica Swale’s 2015 comedy, now receiving its first North American production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is a historical figure, but you’ll be forgiven if you’re unfamiliar. Nell Gwynn was among the first women to perform on stage in London, becoming a popular star of Restoration comedies. Not many 17th-century actors remain prominent in the public imagination, but Gwynn’s fame wasn’t limited to the theatrical; she was also beloved by the masses as a favored mistress of King Charles II.

Her rags-to-riches tale has apparently made her something of a folk heroine in the U.K. Swale’s admiring play attempts to give the lady her due, but achieves only modest success.

When Charles II took the throne in 1660, after a decade in exile while post–civil war England experimented with republican government, among his early decrees was the re-establishment of the theater. Stage performance had been officially absent from London since the war’s start in 1642; theaters were shut down during the conflict, and plays were explicitly outlawed as sinful under the Puritan-influenced rule of Oliver Cromwell.

‘NELL GWYNN’ ★★1⁄2 When: Through Nov. 4 Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Tickets: $48-$88 Info: Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, with one intermission

Charles, who had spent some of his exile at the court of his cousin, France’s Louis XIV, brought back both a love of theater and a new fashion from the continent: Women, previously barred from the stage, would be allowed to tread the boards.

Nell Gwynn, played here by British actor Scarlett Strallen, was part of the first wave. As legend has it, Nell grew up in poverty, raised in a brothel run by her gin-soaked mother, and first gained entry to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane selling oranges in the stands. That’s where we meet her at the top of Swale’s play, when her quick-witted takedown of a heckler captures the attention of leading man Charles Hart (John Tufts).

Hart offers Nell some training in the “attitudes,” the formal gestures and poses that marked the approach to acting for at least a couple of centuries of Western drama. Nell’s education comes at the chagrin of Edward Kynaston (David Bedella), a seasoned actor who made his name playing women’s roles.

King Charles II (Timothy Edward Kane, foreground) rebuffs his advisor Lord Arlington (Larry Yando) in Chicago Shakespeare’s production of “Nell Gwynn,” directed by Christopher Luscombe. | Liz Lauren Photo

King Charles II (Timothy Edward Kane, foreground) rebuffs his advisor Lord Arlington (Larry Yando) in Chicago Shakespeare’s production of “Nell Gwynn,” directed by Christopher Luscombe. | Liz Lauren Photo

Much of Swale’s first act turns on the same kind of winkingly self-aware backstage jokes that were seen on this stage just last year in the theatrical adaptation of “Shakespeare in Love”— another story, come to think of it, that hinged on the novelty of putting a woman on stage to play a female role. And as in that narrative, the female actor inspires the playwright — here the writer John Dryden (Christopher Sheard), portrayed as a plot-challenged plagiarist — to draw female characters who are more than props for male protagonists. (Swale lets Nell get in some solid burns on the ridiculousness of Juliet’s tragic fate, even though it’s established that Nell is illiterate and too young to have seen plays before the wars — but hey, it’s comedy, we’ll allow it.)

That proto-feminist argument that Nell makes to Dryden, along with her sister, Rose (Emma Ladji) and the theater’s props mistress, Nancy (Natalie West, as always a comic treasure), echoes casting debates that we’re somehow still having in 2018. It may seem obvious to us now that women playing women would bring an authenticity, depth and lived-in experience to the stage and the rehearsal room that male actors can’t. Why it’s so hard to learn the same lesson regarding race, ethnicity, sexuality and gender identity 350 years later is a question for Scarlett Johansson’s agents.

Yet soon after Nell’s stage debut, we’re back to a somewhat more traditional gender narrative as King Charles (a nicely droll Timothy Edward Kane) takes a liking to the new star. While she initially resists his advances, soon enough Nell becomes a royal mistress and a lady of the king’s court. And thus the play’s second act reverts to duller storylines of palace intrigue and playing the Other Woman. An unwelcome visit from Nell’s uncouth mother (Hollis Resnik) brings echoes of “My Fair Lady,” following on her acting lessons earlier in the play.

Strallen’s Nell is an ingratiating presence — possibly too much so; she spends about three-quarters of her time on stage wearing the same open-mouthed, game-for-anything grin. But I’m not sure that’s down to Strallen, or even to director Christopher Luscombe’s handsome production, as much as to Swale.

The playwright hasn’t given her Nell a real character arc so much as a string of events, interspersed with bells and whistles to keep our attention: bawdy songs, jigs, a cameo by a dog, even a “Make Britain Great Again” joke that you wonder if she’s inserted specially for this first production in the Colonies. Nell Gwynn may finally be getting the title billing she deserves, but her script is still just a series of attitudes.

Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.

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