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Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.

Nell Gwynn
5.0Reviewer's Rating

For centuries, women have had to face the unnecessary burden of working harder than their male counterparts to control their own opportunities, personal decisions, and living life on their own terms. So it’s refreshing to witness an interesting perspective showing how feminism has indirectly existed for centuries to shake up the status quo, even during the Restoration Period of Charles II. One wouldn’t associate a King’s favorite mistress as a possible feminist role model for future generations seeking change, and dare say, dream to have it all.

The Folgers Theatre’s East coast premiere of Jessica Swale’s Olivier Award Winning Best Comedy, Nell Gwynn, it an exuberant and hilarious production of the rags-to-riches story of one of English history’s most remarkable figures. Using her charm and wits, Nell rises above her beginnings as an orange seller to become the adored actress of the Restoration Theater scene, and the mistress of her biggest fan, King Charles II. Although history tries to present Nell as a common gold digger, Swale’s writing and portrayal of this extraordinary woman shines a spotlight on a most unlikely heroine who seeks out a better life playing to her gifts and making no excuses or apologies for who she is – a women just as equal to a man on the stage and in relationships.

The story centers on the changes enacted by Charles II after being restored to the English throne in 1660. As a performance art lover, he issues two patents to bring theater back to the people with the edict to permit women to play women’s parts on the stage once performed by men. While working to support her family, Nell is discovered while verbally crushing a heckling patron with her sharp wit and comedic grace.

Catching the eye and affections of the lead actor, he takes her under his wing to train her, teaching her how to direct her charms into impressing audiences with her unique acting ability, instantly distancing her from the notions of a woman’s temperance and virtue. When she captures the heart of England’s new king, he makes her his favorite mistress. Their relationship causes a rift in his court, forcing Nell to evaluate her own needs and desires to survive moving forward.

Director Robert Richmond uses this production to tell the funny yet emotional story of how Nell Gwynn uses her drive, honesty, and wit to change the theatrical landscape, and her importance in history as a theatrical trailblazer and beloved mistress to a powerful man. The humor and excellent comedic timing of the production’s performers illustrates her kindness while enchanting the audience with each nuance and comic twist. Richmond masters delivering Swale’s underlying theme and message, questioning: if a woman with gumption, drive and heart can stand up for herself, can she still be taken seriously, or not when judged in public?

Alison Luff, making her DC theatre debut is the lead role as Nell Gwynn, demonstrates an exceptional range of emotions and comedic timing beyond just the words she speaks. With a glance or a gesture, she draw the audience in to the fun and absurdity of each characters foibles she is performing with.

Christopher Dinolfo is a stand out as Edward Kynaston, Nell’s male rival in the acting company. As Kynaston, his comic delivery of a male actor who’s been the go-to for female roles is a lesson in comic verbal volleying, using his character’s over-the-top hysterical dialogue. He presents his voice with a true gift of sharp comedic timing, allowing the audience to understand and love the true diva of the stage he is impersonating.

This production of Nell Gwynn is a true gift to theater lovers everywhere, and introduces us to a true unsung hero of the stage; a role model to women everywhere, who teaches us that you don’t have to apologize for taking what you want and seeking the change needed to live and have all the dreams you seek.

  • Comedy
  • By Jessica Swale
  • Directed by Robert Richmond
  • Cast includes: Allison Luff, Christopher Dinolfo, Catherine Flye, R.J. Foster, Quinn Franzen, Michael Glenn, Nigel Gore
  • Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.
  • Until 10 March 2019

About The Author

Reviewer (USA)

Juliet Martini is a romance and travel writer who has published a number articles and blogs on the recently ended Petite Fours and Hot Tamales writing site, along with articles in her local chapter newsletter with Romance Writers of America and in professional association magazines. By day she uses her skills for good as a professional fundraiser and marketer for a cancer non-profit organization while working on her current romance novel she hopes to publish in the very near future. Besides her love of writing and books, she has had a life-long love and passion for the arts and has been an avid attendee and supporter of theatre and music productions across the United States, especially around her home base of Washington, DC.

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