KPBS AIRDATE: April 19, 2002
“I am a man’s creation; I am the woman every man wants.” The quote comes from one play, but it applies to two. In either case, the character speaking would be… a man. In Caryl Churchill’s acclaimed 1979 “Cloud Nine” and Jeffrey Hatcher’s world premiere “Compleat Female Stage Beauty,” it is men who define what it means to be a woman. But then, somehow, in both plays, one a historical farce, the other a historical fiction, the women finally come into their own, and the men are left to fend for themselves, as themselves.
“Cloud Nine” is a surreal journey into the absurdity of sexual stereotypes and the rigors of identity politics… one woman’s view of the underpinnings of modern social-sexual-political problems. Macho, misogynistic British imperialism is seen as the root cause of sexual and racial oppression. Or it’s a metaphor for patriarchal subjugation. From Act I, set in late 19th century colonial Africa, to Act 2’s neck-snapping shift to late 20th century London, Churchill shows the undermining of gender, family and race. At Diversionary Theatre, the ensemble is uniformly excellent, with the boys great as girls, the girls convincing as boys, the young ones made old, the white ones black, and all this in the flash of a quick-change of costume or setting. Guest director Brendon Fox puts the first act too far over the top; it often veers far beyond farce and almost out of control. Sometimes the political edge gets lost in the excesses. The 2nd act is much more centered and effective.
The second act is also stronger in “Compleat Female Stage Beauty,” premiering at the Old Globe. Hatcher, the Globe’s first Shiley Playwright-in-Residence, has a lot on his mind. He mixes fact with fantasy to serve up 17th century Restoration England, where, after 18 years of Puritanical repression, randy King Charles II once again allowed women to appear onstage. This nearly destroyed the life of Edward Kynaston, the preeminent portrayer of females. Beyond the back-biting, raunchy barbs and gratuitous nudity, Hatcher is making some valid and valuable points about gender and theater, passion, art and compromise. But the message often gets overwhelmed by the opulent costumes, lavish direction and lush underscoring.
There are some delicious performances here, notably Jonathan Fried, imposing as famed actor/manager Thomas Betterton; David Cromwell playing a leering peeper, diarist Samuel Pepys; Tom Hewitt as the foppish, fatuous King and Robert Petkoff, irresistible as the beleaguered Kynaston, whose cocky egotism makes you feel he had something coming to him. While more coarse and less literate than Amy Freed’s recent “Beard of Avon” or the award-winning “Shakespeare in Love,” the play has potential, but, like the women who hesitantly take to the Restoration stage, it needs a little toning down and tuning up.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc