Up until the Restoration in 1660 and the ascension of Charles II to the throne, English social convention kept women from the stage, thus, men and boys performed the female roles in Shakespeare's plays. That's right: Lady Macbeth and Juliet were played originally by male actors.
Carpenter Square Theatre opens its season with "Compleat Female Stage Beauty" by Jeffrey Hatcher, a dark costume comedy about the life-changing effects of the social and artistic evolution and revolution in the early Restoration. The play has an odd relevancy in today's times of uncertainty and change.
Actually, the tragic aspects of "Compleat Female Stage Beauty" are the more interesting parts of the story. The production is OK, but an even darker interpretation than what Carpenter Square is presenting might have been more intriguing.
In this highly fictionalized account, King Charles II issues an edict prohibiting male actors from playing female roles. Edward Kynaston, a leading player of female parts, says the king "outlawed me from my life." Indeed, a serious and interesting issue that Hatcher touches on, but does not probe in depth, is the question of separating the art from the artist. Playing females is Kynaston's art; demanding that he switch to male roles requires him to give up his art, which is not a reasonable request to an artist.
Much of the play involves how Kynaston deals with the royal edict. That is not very well at first, but eventually, Kynaston learns something about how his portrayal of Desdemona in "Othello" does not ring true with women. This hard lesson leads him to direct Margaret Hughes, who has usurped him as Desdemona, with new insight into the role and with a more modern interpretation than probably would have been seen in 1661, when the play is set.
The biggest and most pleasant surprise in this production is Sean Patrick Eckart, who plays Kynaston. According to his program bio, he returned to the stage after a "long absence," and he won the "Harvard University National Championship in humorous interpretation" in 2000. Let's hope the actor suffers no more long absences from the stage from Harvard or any place else. His performance was terrific, showing great range and emotion.
"Compleat Female Stage Beauty" includes many scenes, some of which are cinematically short. This production would fare better if director Rhonda Clark had found a way to make scene changes more seamless and less awkward. As it is, the production includes stagehands who shuffle multiple props on and off stage. The performance needs similar tightening; the pace drags, especially in the second act.
In addition to Kynaston, Hughes and Charles II (a fine Michael Gibbons, playing the king as a fickle dilettante, albeit one who can order executions), some other characters in the play are based, more or less, on real historical figures. Thomas Betterton (Tyler Woods) and Nell Gwynn (Holly McNatt) were important, late-17th-century actors. None other than Samuel Pepys (Brent Weber) serves as the narrator and audience's guide through the story.
Compleat Female Stage Beauty stages at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 26 by Carpenter Square Theatre at Stage Center, 400 W. Sheridan.