PAWTUCKET, R.I. — April De Angelis’ “Playhouse Creatures,” first staged in London in 1993, checks off several boxes for the two Providence-area organizations responsible for its current production.
For Burbage Theatre, the play fulfills the company’s creative mission to produce relevant and compelling stories that serve to excite and engage audiences.
The year is 1669 and London’s theaters have reopened after 17 years of Puritan suppression and just a few years removed from an outbreak of the bubonic plague that killed nearly one-fifth of the city’s population. Clearly there was a great need for stage entertainment at that time, as well as a newfound intrigue regarding King Charles II’s decree that, for the first time and henceforth, only women should play women’s parts.
“Playhouse Creatures” provides a fictionalized account of these women’s opportunities and oppression on stage and off, and examines how they survived on their intellectual, creative, and sexual resourcefulness. In doing so, the play clandestinely but oh so intentionally connects with the current state of misogyny in the theater arts.
For WomensWork Theatre Collaborative, which is partnering with Burbage as the group did with last year’s staging of Paula Vogel’s “The Oldest Profession,” the play satisfies their charge to promote female-identifying playwrights and works that provide significant roles for older women.
“Playhouse Creatures” fosters a strong feminist message written by a woman, directed by a woman (MJ Daly), and which focuses on the lives of five of the most famous of the pioneering female actors during the Restoration period — Nell Gwyn (Lorraine Guerra), Elizabeth Farley (Autumn Jefferson), Rebecca Marshall (Rae Mancini), Mary Betterton (Paula Faber), and Katherine Corey (Lynne Collinson).
In life, Corey famously played the role of a sharp-witted, world-weary everywoman prostitute, Doll Common, in Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist.” Here, she is an older actor who is referred to by that character’s name only, and functions as a timeless representation of the spirit of Restoration theater. She begins the play alone on stage delivering the line “once this was a playhouse” as if looking back at that time. She ends the play in similar fashion, recalling that the playhouse used to be a bear pit where the mistreated animals danced for the pleasure of patrons. “Playhouse creatures they called you,” she tells her fellow actors, “like you was animals.”
Though quite a good fit for Burbage Theatre Co. and WomensWork Theatre Collaborative, at issue is whether this play and this production of it check off boxes for the audience.
It does if creative storytelling is one of them. To forward the narrative, the playwright relies on a combination of lively dialogue, lengthy monologues, and briefly performed excerpts from the plays of the day. And she uses plenty of humor to counterbalance the actors’ hardships and humiliations, and to keep the play from sounding like two hours of sociopolitical sermonizing. Men rule over these women, but in this version of the play (there are other more complicated and convoluted renditions floating around out there), their power is cleverly reinforced by their never having to appear on stage. Instead, they send carriages, haunt these women’s thoughts, and infiltrate their conversations.
Scenic design that effectively complements the storytelling is another checked box. The intimate Burbage performance space, which is made even more confining by being surrounded on three sides by seating, serves as the backstage area where Nell, Liz, Rebecca, Mary, and Doll spend their time. No attention is paid to the provision of color or comfort, no effort is made to disguise the theater’s exposed bare brick wall, and designer Trevor Elliott’s limited supply of modest furnishings accessorize nothing. A small wood platform with floor lamps represents the stage where the actors perform. All this firmly establishes the bleak world in which these women existed, and keeps our eyes riveted on the performers playing them.
Unfortunately, riveting performances are few in this production. Only Collinson as Doll and Mancini as Rebecca Marshall deliver their lines with any sense of spontaneity and authenticity, find the humor in the script, and create characters worth caring about. The others have not found their character’s voice or established any chemistry (at least, not as of preview week) and, ironically, perform with the very same affectation that, in the play, veteran actor Mary Betterton warns newcomer Elizabeth Farley to never to do on stage.
There are also unfortunate missteps throughout this production. For one, despite the play’s time and place, no performer has a British accent. This is a missed opportunity to establish differences in the social status of the five characters and track the disparity between their backstage existence and the aristocrats they play on the stage. Mostly, it just reads wrong.
The director has also chosen to use snippets of upbeat contemporary tunes to fill the time between scenes. The intention may be to reinforce the timelessness of the story being told, which is hinted at in the script. But the music manages to pull the audience out of the world of this play, which has been so carefully curated by the playwright and reinforced by costume designer Riley Nedder and prop master Brittany Costello.
Iffy acting and staging shortcomings are problematic in any professional production, but they have added weight and consequence when showcasing the lives and times of five pioneering women of the British stage.
Play by April De Angelis. Directed by MJ Daly. At the Burbage Theatre Co., 59 Blackstone Ave., Pawtucket. Through Feb. 25. Tickets are $30, including fees. 401-484-0355, burbagetheatre.org.
Bob Abelman is an award-winning theater critic who formerly wrote for the Austin Chronicle. Connect with him on Facebook.