Director Walter Bobbie isn't a stranger to the concept of drag on stage. In his acclaimed Broadway revival of Chicago, feel-good journalist Mary Sunshine hits her high notes in falsetto to great comic effect. But drag in theater wasn't always about shock value or camp.
During the Restoration era, Edward Kynaston was one of England's most notable actresses; his genius at playing female roles, especially Shakespeare's tragic Desdemona, was celebrated by critics and audiences alike. But the era in which men in theater performed women's roles was dying. When Charles II swept into power and lifted the ban on women performing on stage, Kynaston's world was essentially destroyed. The once powerful star and celebrity found himself unemployed and obsolete. The times had changed--and so, Kynaston's stage gender had to change.
Bobbie brings contemporary relevance to this story with a new look at Jeffrey Hatcher's Compleat Female Stage Beauty at the Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC). Described as both a backstage comedy and a moving story of an artist's search for identity, Compleat... was co-commissioned by City Theatre in Pittsburgh and Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, where it premiered in July, 1999. Hatcher, perhaps best known for his trio of monologues Three Viewings, has been rewriting the Kynaston play in anticipation of the PTC production, while Bobbie has re-envisioned the visual concepts.
In addition to his work on Chicago--which earned him Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards--Bobbie is well known as the former artistic director of City Center's acclaimed Encores! series, where he premiered Chicago and Fiorello! and co-adapted DuBarry Was a Lady. He also conceived and directed Rodgers & Hammerstein's A Grand Night For Singing, for which he received Tony nominations for Best Book and Best Musical. And he directed and co-authored the book for Broadway's lamentable Footloose, which rather surprisingly earned him his third Tony nomination.
Bobbie explains that, although Compleat... is the first show he's worked on with PTC, he is well aware of the award-winning company's reputation. "Terrence McNally is a good friend, and he had a great time working with Sarah [Garonzik, producing artistic director of PTC] when they premiered Master Class there," Bobbie said. "So, when the opportunity came up, I grabbed it."
The opportunity arose when the director came across Hatcher's script late last winter and "just loved it. It is very moving to see triumph in the midst of adversity, which is a central issue in the show," Bobbie says. "Kynaston goes from being a great star and celebrity to being basically ostracized, unemployed, and humiliated. It takes him some time to come to terms with who he is, but he reinvents himself and passes on his great gifts as an actor and teacher. Also, the sexual politics of the play seems completely contemporary to me. Women's politics, men's politics, gay and straight--all these issues still resonate. Although the play is set in London in 1662, thematically it feels completely modern.
"The play is also about the theater," Bobbie continues. "When the law allowed women to perform on stage, it changed theater forever. I think Jeff Hatcher has shown the transformation from a stylized form of acting to a more natural form. When you have a woman play a woman, you remove a level of artifice. We're trying to find a way to put the whole world of the theater on stage. We can see the actors, a suggestion of the audience in the theater, the backstage area; we're trying to shift the point of view. And it's been great fun for John Lee Beatty to come up with a design that suggests all these things for the audience."
Bobbie says there are no plans to bring this version of Compleat... to other regional theaters, "but if it's wonderful, there will be calls for it. It will find a future life. Right now, we are just trying to do our best work. I believe in the play completely. There are lots of wonderful people in New York who are interested in its future. You can never predict the life of these things; I never could have predicted the future of Chicago before it happened. It's always a surprise. And it's just as surprising when something doesn't work. No one sets out to do a bomb! You pick projects because you think they are good and will succeed. And, on good days, you're right."
Though he is perhaps best known for his work with musicals, Bobbie said what appeals most to him in a new show is a good story. "If there's something that draws me to a piece, it is a strong narrative," he says. "A lot of contemporary dramas and comedies are wonderfully interesting psychological studies of characters, but Compleat... actually has a strong narrative pull. The story itself is interesting, and it's funny. You might hear a description of the show and you think that it's going to be Masterpiece Theater, but it's not that at all. It's kind of a comedy with purpose. The subject is something that arguably might have collapsed under the weight of historic drama, but Jeff has dealt with complex themes in surprising ways."
The cast of Philadelphia Theatre Company's Compleat Female Stage Beauty features Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theater performers. Aside from the great John Lee Beatty (sets), the creative team includes multiple-award-winners Peter Kaczorowski (lights), Catherine Zuber (costumes), and Stanley Silverman (original music). The show begins previews October 20, officially opens on October 25, and runs through November 19. Other shows in PTC's 25th anniversary season are the world premiere of No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs by John Henry Redwood (January 26-February 25); a show TBA (April 13-May 13); and The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project (June 1-July 1).
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