Jessica Swale’s biographical comedy Nell Gwynn at D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Theater presents the titular character’s rise from a mere orange seller to a mistress of the King of England. The play is full of witty banter, cleverly written songs, beautiful costumes, and a wide range of talented actors. Quite close to the actual historical details, Nell Gwynn provides an escape into Restoration-era England.
From the beginning, Gwynn (Allison Luff) establishes herself as a sharp-witted and humorous woman. Her life changes when, at work one day, she enchants the King’s Company theater troupe’s lead actor Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen), who recruits her. The plot moves swiftly, and the speed is exactly in tune with the woman herself. The writing is clever and enrapturing as the audience watches Gwynn’s journey and interaction with a host of new characters.
Edward Kynaston (Christopher Dinolfo), another King’s Company troupe actor who previously played all of the female roles before Gwynn arrived, stands out as a never-ending source of snarky asides. The only other woman in the company, Nancy, played by Catherine Flye, is clueless but lovable. The interactions of the whole theater troupe never failed to cause laughter.
Quite soon, the King (R.J. Foster) develops a strong attachment towards Gwynn and persistently tries to woo her. King Charles II was stereotypically arrogant, accustomed to receiving whatever he wanted, but his actions sometimes seem a little too invasively flirtatious. Despite his obstinate pursuit, Gwynn manages to balance his repeated advances with clever wordplay and coquettish actions of her own, disrupting the awkwardness she feels and the audience gleans from the encounters.
Although Gwynn’s character was captivating, the play does not explain the smaller details. The audience sees that Gwynn becomes one of the few women performing on a stage in Restoration England, but the reason for theater starting to allow women on stage is not clear or explained. It felt like a large chunk of exposition was missing. The Queen of England appeared only for the briefest of scenes to vent her frustration at the King when she discovers his previous mistress Lady Castlemaine (Regina Aquino), but not when he replaces Castlemaine for Nell Gwynn or even when yet another woman appears. Because the Queen had such fury and rage at the King for his first mistress, it was strange that she never appeared when Nell Gwynn arrived. Gwynn became even more well-known and popular as his mistress than Lady Castlemaine.
The fantastic acting of all of the characters was enrapturing, and the few musical numbers which accompanied the music was equally as impressive. The singing was excellent, although sporadic. However, the show’s musical moments did show off Luff’s awe-inspiring vocal talent and the mischievousness of Gwynn’s character. Luff’s operatic and hearty voice matched the artful music of the musicians, who played Kim Sherman’s original music and stayed in character with 1600s dress and manner.
The second half of the play passed quickly, with a large gap of time between the acts. Although a bit predictable in the estrangement and transformation of Gwynn’s character, the ending was a satisfying denouement.
The play is a bit long, running a little under three hours. Despite the length, the story is a fun and unique take on a little-known figure in history. Swale’s comedy is sure to make for an amusing and rapturous evening. It spurs tons of laughter and makes each of the major characters’ personalities as familiar as friends. The production has beautiful orchestrations, and the charm of the intimate Shakespeare-era theater helps to encapsulate the audience in the world during King Charles’s reign. The play is a perfect escape into a humorous yet somewhat historically-accurate world.
Nell Gwynn runs until March 10, 2019.