Playhouse Creatures by April de Angelis is a little-known play written in 1993 and set in Restoration England of the late 17th century.
Prior to Charles II ascending the throne of England, women were not allowed to act on stage, but Charles II rescinded that law—much to the delight of male patrons. A few actresses, such as, notoriously, Nell Gwyn, became famous for their stage performances and their private lives (Gwyn reputedly had an affair with the king). Some if not all turned to prostitution; they were paid little as actresses and that was the only other way they could make a living. This world of Restoration London theater is the world brought to life in Playhouse Creatures, which takes place entirely on stage and backstage at the Dukes Company Theater.
Billed as a bawdy comedy, Playhouse Creatures is hilarious throughout the first act. In the second act it turns serious, dramatic and tragic, as the audience is provided a look into the nitty-gritty lives of these actresses. It’s an all-female show featuring Lanita Grice as Doll Common, an actress who also serves as wardrobe lady and all-around backstage help; Jesse Morrow as Nell Gwyn; Kate Ayers as Mrs. Betterton, wife of the theater owner and teacher of younger actresses; Heather Christopher as Mrs. Marshall and Dana Winter as Mrs. Farley. Both Mrs. Betterton and Mrs. Farley use their sexuality to advance their careers, not necessarily with good results. This is as wonderful and talented a group of actresses as you’re likely to see on stage together.
The action alternates quickly between onstage and backstage areas, and as we go back and forth, the style of acting changes. On stage the actresses perform in a manner known as declamatory acting, a stilted and expressive style common in 1660 but comical today. Ayers in particular masters this style wonderfully, while Morrow as Nell Gwyn exaggerates it to comic delight because Gwyn is new to acting and at first bad at it. They perform scenes from plays of the day, meaning lots of Shakespeare and over-the-top death scenes. Backstage, the acting is natural in the modern style, and it is here the women reveal their true humanity.
The costumes, designed by Bianca Cloudman, are outstanding. Patrick Gilmore’s lighting creates beautiful transitions between scenes, and be sure to pay attention to the props, especially the voodoo doll and murderous snakes.
The Midnight Sun is a small venue. Actors are right in the audience’s faces. This intimacy, combined with the emotionally naked acting, makes Playhouse Creatures a moving experience that cannot easily be forgotten. Congratulations to director Michael Christopher and his cast and crew for an excellent production.
What: Playhouse Creatures
Where: The Midnight Sun Performing Space,
113 Columbia St. NW, Olympia
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday,
2:30 p.m. Sunday through March 4
How much: $12-$15