Jeffrey Hatcher’s plays tend to revolve around historical events, and Compleat Female Stage Beauty, presented by City Lights Theater Company, is no exception. The main character, Edward Kynaston (Thomas Gorrebeeck), is a man who specializes in playing females roles on the stage the 17th century. Kynaston is lauded by English society at a time when the law required all female roles to be played by men. A closeted homosexual, Kynaston has a taste for upper-class indulgence that includes George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (Robert Campbell). Kynaston, pronounced “Kinnison” and sometimes called “Kin,” revels in his fame and glory for his portrayal of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello, especially her death scene—that is, until, the aspiring Margaret Hughes (Robyn Winslow) plays Desdemona in a secret theater. Hughes has seen Kynaston’s performance many times and has copied his every move, right down to the eye bats.

King Charles II (George Psarras), an avid theater buff, decides to change the law and decrees men forbidden to play female roles. Kynaston’s world comes crashing down suddenly. He has to reinvent himself. After humorously insulting socialite Sir Charles Sedley (Dale Albright), he loses his lover, who confides that when he slept with Kynaston, he imagined being with Kynaston’s fictional characters. He is shunned and beaten by thugs. He tries to act the part of Othello to the court but soon realizes he performs too much like his old female characters. Kynaston becomes an outcast and is reduced to dancing in shady burlesque theaters. He is eventually found by his old stage dresser Maria (Kate McGrath), who helps him out and tells him his portrayal of Desdemona couldn’t be more wrong. Desdemona wouldn’t just accept death with meagerness; she would fight for her life.

Gorrebeeck is wonderful as Kynaston, coming to terms with himself, sexually or otherwise. Psarras plays King Charles II with superb pompous regality. Gough’s Thomas Betterton comes across perfectly as the stressed-out theater owner. Campbell is equally as good as the snobbish Villiars. I started to get annoyed with Therese Schneck’s portrayal of the king’s mistress, Nell Gwynn. But I later realized that was the point. She’s an annoying dimwit. Bravo. As Margaret Hughes, Winslow displays excellent comedic timing, and her serious dramatic parts were flawless. The most believable character turns out to be Maria. McGrath is totally natural in her small but significant part. Compleat Female Stage Beauty is a history lesson wrapped up in a fascinating story.

Compleat Female Stage Beauty
Through Feb. 20
City Lights Theater Co., San Jose
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