When Restoration-era diarist Samuel Pepys wrote about “the prettiest woman in the whole house” and “the handsomest man,” in both cases he was referring to the same person—English actor Edward Kynaston. Known throughout mid-17th Century London for his portrayals of Shakespearean heroines Desdemona, Ophelia, and Juliet, Kynaston achieved more recent fame when Billy Crudup played him on the big screen opposite Claire Danes in 2004’s Stage Beauty. North Hollywood’s Crown City Theatre Company now presents the fascinating play upon which Stage Beauty was based—Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty, and a gem of a production it is.

 Ben Rovner stars as Kynaston, whom we first see in full Desdemona drag opposite George Alvarez as Restoration leading man Thomas Betterton’s Othello, Desdemona’s death scene played just as it might have been 350 years ago—in other words, campy as all get-out to our modern eyes and ears.

Compleat Female Stage Beauty then goes on to immerse us in Ned Kynaston’s world, along with that of the fascinating cast of characters surrounding him.

 There’s Ned’s dresser Maria (Joanne McGee), who dreams of life upon the wicked stage, a dream denied her by a law requiring all female roles to be played by men, and would-be actress Margaret Hughes (Natalie Hope MacMillan), who secretly defies this law by appearing in a competing production of Othello as a carbon copy of Kynaston’s Desdemona. (As a sidenote, Hatcher’s screenplay combined the two characters, turning them into a single love interest for Crudup’s Ned, doubtless to give Danes a larger role, Ned and Maria/Margaret a romantic relationship, and the film greater box office appeal.) There’s also Ned’s lover Villiars, aka the Duke Of Buckingham (Josef Bette); foppish Sir Charles Sedley (Richard Sabine) and his two noble gal pals Lady Meresvale (Diana Taweel) and Miss Frayne (Sarah French); a bewigged King Charles II (Dennis Gersten) and his saucy young mistress, the soon-to-be legendary Restoration actress Nell Gwynn (Michelle Page); and Samuel Pepys himself (Cameron Daxon), whose diary remains one of historians’ primary sources for the English Restoration period.

Compleat Female Stage Beauty follows the ups and downs of Kynaston’s storied career, from reigning as the toast of all London to finding himself persona non grata in the King’s court when a chance remark taken the wrong way prompts a royal decree—that henceforth no “she” shall be played by a “he” on an English stage. Unable to butch up his acting style sufficiently to play male roles and finding himself suddenly in competition with a whole new out-of-work acting pool, Ned is soon lowered to performing in the 17th Century equivalent of a red-light district strip club. Still, in the immortal words of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, our leading lady “ain’t down yet” because—to paraphrase Restoration playwright William Congreve—hell hath no fury like Ned Kynaston scorned.

William A. Reilly has not only directed Compleat Female Stage Beauty with assurance and flair, he has composed an original musical score that ups emotional ante, never more so than when underscoring Ned’s heartbreakingly doomed attempts to prove himself capable of playing a man.

 As for the production’s leading man—or lady in certain scenes—, Rovner proves himself an actor of astonishing versatility and considerable power. That the real Ned Kynaston was probably more androgynous/less muscular than Rovner only makes the Chicago-to-L.A. transplant’s transformation all the more remarkable. Though the actor’s strapping physique and hint of a six-o’clock shadow (despite close shaving) make it somewhat less plausible that two noblewomen would refuse to believe in Ned’s “man parts” without copping a feel, in all other ways Rovner vanishes into Edward Kynaston’s feminine persona, the very embodiment of Compleat Female Stage Beauty. Rovner doesn’t miss an emotional note in a performance that solidifies the young actor’s status as one of L.A. theater’s finest, edgiest young leading men.

 Several supporting performances are particular standouts in the topnotch Crown City ensemble. As King Charles II, Gersten takes what in other hands might be no more than a stereotypically vain and pompous monarch and gives him humanity and depth. McGee and MacMillan shine in roles which earn both of them laughs when deliberately bad-acting Shakespeare.  Later, the duo score in a pair of dramatic scenes opposite Rovner, McGee in a touching exploration of the differences between same- and opposite-gender lovemaking, MacMillan in a rehearsal-turned-performance of Desdemona’s death scene that ends up downright riveting. As for Page’s captivatingly quirky, remarkably deep work as Nell, Los Angeles theatergoers can rejoice that this Texas-to-L.A. transplant (by way of London) has chosen this production to make her return to the stage. Alvarez, Bette, Daxon, French, and Taweel do terrific work as well, not only in their abovementioned roles but in various cameos.

Choreographer Stephanie Pease merits a round of applause for the grace with which the cast (and Rovner in particular) execute their stage moves. (I’m told that cast members started each rehearsal with a half-hour or more of ballet work.)

 Though Dean Cameron’s set design is less sumptuous than those you might see at NoHo’s The Road Theatre or The Antaeus Company, it provides a more than adequate backdrop to the play’s multiple-location scenes, which Zad Potter’s lighting design illuminates quite effectively. Cameron’s period costumes are amazingly opulent given budget limitations, though I might suggest adding long sleeves to Rovner’s Desdemona nightgown. Additional kudos are due Nikko Tsiotsis’s sound design, McGee’s prop design, and Carol Jones’ fight choreography (of both cat and slow-motion variety). Gary Lam is technical director/master carpenter and Potter is stage manager.

Productions as diverse as Danny And The Deep Blue Sea, I’m Just Wild About Harry, All In The Timing, A Chicago Christmas Carol, Boys’ Life, USS Pinafore, A Big Gay North Hollywood Wedding, and The Apple Tree have established Crown City as one of Los Angeles’ best and most versatile theater companies. Compleat Female Stage Beauty further cements this reputation. It is historical dramedy at its best and most entertaining.

Crown City Theater, St. Matthew’s Church, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
May 31, 2012
Photos: Daniel G. Lam

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