REVIEW: 'Compleat Female Stage Beauty' lifts petticoats on characters' confused identity

Turnabout comes off as fair play, foul play and the trigger for crossdressed and undressed identity confusion in Jeffrey Hatcher's "Compleat Female Stage Beauty."

The University of Evansville Theatre's production lifts the petticoats to expose a 17th century English actor's private and professional parts and the identity crises he suffers after a royal decree allowing women to portray females on British stages forces him out of the corset.

Director R. Scott Lank's team of actors, designers and technicians presents the story of confounded characters plunging into uncertain times with libertine abandon, frank sexuality and bruised, confused humanity.

Set in London in the 1660s, "Compleat Female Stage Beauty" follows the unraveling of Edward Kynaston, an arrogant actor famous for his performances as Desdemona, Lady Macbeth, Ophelia and other ill-fated Shakespearean women portrayed by men in a time when laws barred females from performing in the theater.

Offstage, Kynaston peels off his corset and petticoats, but remains in wig and in female character for intimate performances with his longtime lover, a closeted duke who needs to pretend he's bedding a doomed Shakespearean lady to feel like a man.

Kynaston stumbles over his own hubris, however, knocking open the stage door to female thespians, closing the curtain on his own career as a leading lady. He tumbles into an unscripted future, improvised with a surprising cast of players.

Lank's 15-member cast of college players delivers an entertaining, engaging and provocative 2 1/2-hour performance (with one intermission) that includes some strong, coarse language and simulated sexual encounters.

Robin Coppock offers a sobering, harrowing performance as Kynaston, on a journey that shatters his character's smug superiority and delivers a battering lesson in humility, humanity and self-awareness.

Julia Strange embodies the honest, vulgar vitality of Nell Gwynn, the street tart who uses sex and her saucy wit to win her way with the libertine King Charles II, but remains true to herself and her friends.

Olivia Hebert paints a wistful portrait of longing as Kynaston's maid, Maria; and Sarah McAfee radiates a vulnerable integrity in the role of Margaret Hughes, looking to Kynaston to help her achieve not just fame, but artistry on stage.

Other notable performances come from Christopher Hailey as the simpering prig Sir Charles Sedley; Anders Nerheim as Kynaston's friend, fellow actor and employer, Thomas Betterton; Aaron R. Johnson as the hedonistic dilettante King Charles II; and Trenton Schneiders as the gadabout diarist Samuel Pepys, whose journal entries set each major scene.

Patti McCrory's lavish costumes capture the mood and the period. Much of the production's style telegraphs uncertainty, instability and change, however, from the mural-sized, abstract painting in an ornate gilded frame overlooking Sarah Dory's minimal scenic design to the play's genre-blending chamber music, which includes classical arrangements of pop hits by Coldplay and U2 and a contemporary arrangement of a Baroque classic written by Johann Pachelbel.

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