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An American Premiere for Nell Gwynn

A Restoration-era heroine makes good at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Scarlett Strallen as the title character in Nell Gwynn, directed by Christopher Luscombe, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
(© Liz Lauren)

It's a new era in swinging 1660s London. Just ask the title character of Nell Gwynn, Jessica Swale's Restoration-era comedy now playing its American premiere at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. King Charles II (Timothy Edward Kane) has lifted the Puritan ban on live theater, and the King's Playhouse at Drury Lane is a hotbed of entertainment. Everybody from the lowest commoner to the king himself would come to see leading man Charles Hart (John Tufts) and the rest of the King's Company perform the comedies and dramas of the day. Working the crowds were vendors and merchants, including a young orange seller by the name of Nell Gwynn (Scarlett Strallen). Impressed by her quick retorts to hecklers, Hart invites Nell to train with him as an actor, and soon she is the darling of London audiences.

Infatuated by Nell's charms, King Charles takes her to court and installs her as his favorite mistress, much to the chagrin of his wife, Queen Catherine of Braganza (Hollis Resnik) and his former chief mistress, Lady Castlemaine (Emily Gardner Xu Hall). The plucky Nell must balance her onstage career with her relationship with the King and her newfound celebrity.

Strallen possesses an impish comedic presence and a megawatt smile, matched with a lovely singing voice, showcased in 17th-century music hall ditties adapted by Swale and Nigel Hess. Her ample charms and deft physical comedy make this real-life Cinderella story seem believable, as the low-born Gwynn catches the eyes and hearts of audience, actors, and kings alike. Kane shares a lovely chemistry with Strallen as their characters' quarrelsome, mischievous flirtation mellows into a lifelong affection.

The King's Company is a bawdy group, and they deliver Swale's snappy banter with panache. Tufts plays the vainglorious Hart with comic brio, and David Bedella has fun as the fussy Edward Kynaston, who had his pick of the best female roles before Nell came along. Natalie West steals every scene she's in as Nancy, the coarse washerwoman who becomes Nell's dresser. At court, however, the comic pace flags, despite the considerable comic talents of Larry Yando as the smarmy Lord Arlington. Too many clumsy references to contemporary political events become heavy-handed, and the political and religious conflicts of the period are mentioned often, but too vaguely to bring any real urgency.

Both the opulent court of King Charles II and the well-trodden stage of the King's Playhouse are rendered ornately by Hugh Durrant, who serves double duty as scenic and costume designer. Nell's upward mobility is illustrated by her increasingly luxurious gowns, which reach their pinnacle with a gorgeous pastel confection as Nell settles into life as the royal mistress. Director Christopher Luscombe weaves the story into the aisles and balconies of Chicago Shakespeare's Courtyard Theater. Amber Mak's choreography is slyly suggestive — a perfect complement to Luscombe's direction.

Though it has plenty to say about theater itself, and about the gender politics of Restoration theater in particular, Swale's play is first and foremost a lighthearted comedy. Featuring clever wordplay, delightful design, and a leading lady who is such fun to root for, Nell Gwynn is accessible to lovers of theater, and novices as well.

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