This has been one of the more difficult reviews to write. Not because it’s flawed or misdirected, but because it is one of the most spirited, ebullient, engaging plays I’ve seen in a long while, and I’m not certain I have the vocabulary to adequately express that.
Making its American premiere at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST), the Olivier Award winning comedy, 'Nell Gwynn," opens with all the pomp, circumstance, and flamboyance you’d expect of the 17th century Restoration under the “Merry Monarch” King Charles II. But quick witted actress and favorite mistress Nell Gwynn’s feminism and playwright Jessica Swale’s brilliant lines make it all the more contemporary.
Swale admits taking the liberty of “sketching the bones of known facts” when it comes to Nell (working class lives were never recorded accurately) but the key events and historical facts are accurate. Swale believes that Nell and the King were in love; after all, didn’t he build a secret passage from Westminster to her house in Pall Mall?
The comedy plots Nell’s legendary rise from selling oranges at the new Drury Lane Theater, reopened after eleven years of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan ban, to leading actress and devoted mistress of King Charles. (As one Australian critic said “from bawdy to boudoir”). Under original director Christopher Luscombe’s vibrant tutelage and Swale’s facile lines, Nell Gwynn is truly a love letter to the theater. And it’s more than splendidly aided by the “ripe comic ditties” of musical composer/lyricist Nigel Hess and the sumptuous scenic and costume designs of Hugh Durrant.
Actress Scarlett Strallen displays all the impish charm, cheeky courage, and strikingly luminous beauty of Nell. Strallen’s chemistry with fellow actor John Tufts portraying Charles Hart, the man who recognizes her talents, is equally matched. Timothy Edward Kane is the definitive regal, handsome, and beautifully postured King Charles II.
One of Chiicago’s favorite actors (and mine), Larry Yando is a masterful ingratiating, scheming, threatening chief minister Lord Arlington (yes, he’s the representative villain). Yando and Kane get to deliver some of the funnier lines, but none so favorite of the audience as the exchange “you need to make Britain great again—say, that’s catchy”....”Not catchy, it’s ridiculous” and all delivered with poker faces.
Truly, the entire supporting ensemble shines, yet there are a few portrayals too delightful to overlook. Accolades must go to Emma Ladji as the sweet, supportive but strong Rose, sister to Nell and Richard David as Ned, the apprentice actor.
The scene stealing role of Edward Kynaston, the last male actor who famously played females onstage, is gloriously portrayed by David Bedella. He is truly magnificent; every time he graces the stage, you want him to stay. The same can be said for Natalie West as Nancy, the dresser, confidante, and reluctant actress. And oh, yes, watch out for Bentley, who makes a brief appearance as Oliver Cromwell in Act 2.
This is a superb, dramatic, saucy, wonderfully funny royal treat. Yet I fear like the King and her audiences, I am besotted by 'Nell Gwynn."
• Regina Belt-Daniels is a working actress and director. She is a retired District 47 Special Educator, a retired Raue Center for the Arts Board member and currently serves on the Boards of It’s Showtime-Huntley and RCLPC. Regina is also a 2018 Woman of Distinction.
Through Nov. 4
Chicago Shakespeare Courtyard Theater
2 hours and 30 minutes including one intermission