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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

New Conservatory Theater Center Looks To History To Examine Gender Roles

Posted By on Wed, May 27, 2015 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Sam Jackson and Stephen McFarland - LOIS TEMA
  • Lois Tema
  • Sam Jackson and Stephen McFarland

In Jeffrey Hatcher's Compleat Female Stage Beauty, the lines of gender are blurry in 1661 England. Edward Kynaston is known and loved for playing the leading female roles of the theater, until King Charles II — inspired by the work of actress Margaret Hughes — orders that women be able to act onstage, leaving Kynaston heartbroken and jobless. New Conservatory Theater Center's production is directed by Artistic Director Ed Decker, and opened last Saturday night.

It should be noted that although it's always been a bit unclear, Kynaston's sexuality was unknown in real life. Hatcher took quite a liberty when creating an entire world around the assumption that he was gay — but it is a compelling story, and so this can more or less go overlooked.

The play's first and seconds acts could be be be labeled comedy and tragedy, respectively. And they are just that. Aside from a few brief moments, each act sticks closely to its decided theme, and ultimately the lack of dynamics that makes the roughly three hour play feel a bit long. Throughout the evening, this obstacle is reflected in the sometimes labored exchanges between characters. And although there aren't any glaring errors in the piece, viewers are subtlety reminded of how difficult it is for a contemporary American troupe to pull off dialogue from 1600s England.

click to enlarge STEPH
  • Steph
But ultimately, it's a talented group. The positives far outweigh any hiccups during the evening.

Stephen McFarland's facility with the role makes playing its dramatically different aspects look easy. His Kynaston is a lovable diva while his down-and-out Kynaston is like a delicate little broken bird. It's a meaty part, and Farland seems to really dive in and enjoy it. Frankly, it's no easy task to make a male come across as sympathetic while begging not to relinquish a woman's job to a woman. Yet the audience can feel the stains that come during such a different time period, and Farland's Kynaston never comes across unfavorably.

He's supported by the handsome Justin Liszanckie as Kynaston's secret lover (whose quips are some of the best in the show), Elissa Beth Stebbins (who plays a multidimensional Margart Huges), and the hilarious duo of Matt Weimer and Ali Haas as King Charles II and his mistress, Nell. Sam Jackson plays Kynaston's former seamstress-turned-actress, Maria. She's lovely, and we're left wishing that her part was longer. In fact, one of the most poignant scenes of Compleat Female Stage Beauty takes place between a broken Kynaston and a thriving Maria. Long an admirer of Kynaston, Maria takes him in when he's at his worst. Looking to fix his quickly deteriorating life by any means possible, Kynaston and Maria begin an awkward and doomed dance through various sexual positions. It's decidedly uncomfortable to watch, heightened by the fact that every time the couple creates a new shape, they pause to ask each other, "Who am I now?"

click to enlarge Stephan McFarland - LOIS TEMA
  • Lois Tema
  • Stephan McFarland

That's the thing with Compleat Female Stage Beauty. Set in the 1600s, written in the 1990s, and staged here in 2015, we see that questions surrounding ourselves as sexual beings are age-old ones. No, the play isn't overly concerned with historical accuracy, and yes, some of the elements seem more contemporary than you'd expect. But by using this quest for self-realization as a platform, Hatcher creates a story that's as relevant today as it would have been hundreds of years ago.


Compleat Female Stage Beauty through June 14 at New Conservatory Theater Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., $25-$45, 861-8972 or nctcsf.org.



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Laura Jaye Cramer

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