Monday, January 24, 2011

Press Pass | Compleat Female Stage Beauty

People are talking about Compleat Female Stage Beauty! Big Idea's latest Press Pass features SNR, Sacramento Press and Sacramento Magazine.

The end of the world
by Kel Munger

There are many ways for the world to end, and whether it’s a meteor taking out an entire species or a change of fashion that ruins one particular life, it’s terrifying. In Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty, we see an apocalypse in the life of a Restoration-period “boy actor.” Based on the real Edward Kynaston, mentioned in the diaries of Samuel Pepys as the “most beautiful woman in London,” Hatcher’s play tells the story of a man skilled at playing women’s roles. But then women take the stage, and his whole reason for being is demolished.

Big Idea Theatre’s production is a how-to guide for a complex, funny and insightful show. Not only are the leads particularly well-cast, but the supporting players also are all good enough to more than hold their own. Add this to a very flexible and well-designed set (Brian Harrower, with Brian Watson, Kirk Blackinton and Justin D. Muñoz), outstanding costuming (Kat Wolinski), top-notch pacing and a deft hand at directing (also Harrower), and you have one of the best local shows in recent memory.

As Kynaston, Benjamin T. Ismail gives us an emotionally fragile man who has invested everything he is in his career and, like most artists, it is not just his job, it is his identity. He is so obsessed with his craft that, upon hearing that a woman has played his signature role, Desdemona in Othello, his first question is, “How did she die?” But his professional curiosity quickly becomes a dangerous rivalry, and his headstrong insistence that he is the better woman results in some serious consequences. The confidence Ismail projects is slowly chipped apart by the way reality has shifted.

As Margaret Hughes, the first “female” actor, Kristine David is delightful and determined. Best of all, she treats us to a bit of “bad acting” that is both hilarious and difficult for an actress as accomplished as she is to pull off. Her Margaret is a woman with a will to succeed as well-wrought as Kynaston’s; there is steel in her corset.

Other supporting roles are equally well-done: Justin D. Muñoz as an actor/theater owner; Jouni Kirjola as the diarist Pepys; Brian Watson as the Duke of Buckingham, who is carrying on a clandestine affair with Kynaston. But the supporting role that is truly a scene stealer is the fantastic work of Carrie Joyner as Maria, a theatrical seamstress drafted onto the stage. Joyner imbues Maria with a dignity and poise that makes her the moral center of the story.

Also noteworthy are the performances of Rick Eldredge as Charles II and Josephine Longo as his mistress, Nell Gwynn. Though their contributions are mostly comedic, there are flashes from both—particularly in Eldredge’s final exchange with Kynaston—that are pure inspiration.

Compleat Female Stage Beauty adds to Big Idea Theatre’s growing reputation for community theater that’s much closer to what the professionals do (and it’s not surprising that both Ismail and David have done professional work at Capital Stage). The production values and level of artistry make this show a real deal: amateur prices, professional show.

by Julia Marino

It is the year 1661 in England, and the lovely Desdemona lies sleeping in her bed, long golden locks draping over white linen. She awakens slowly to the sound of her lover. “Othello, is that you?” she asks sleepily. Othello, a masculine Moor, approaches her, intent to kill in his heart. He grabs a beaded pillow, and in a few moments, suffocates the damsel to death.
Gasps of terror turn to laughter as Desdemona jumps up from her deathbed, takes off a wig of flowing curls, and reveals the man behind Shakespeare’s lead lady – Ned Kynaston, the theatre’s greatest male portrayer of female roles in London.
“Oh, but the play is not over!” he says. The audience cheering, he falls elegantly onto the bed. Later, backstage, Kynaston and his company of actors try desperately to deal with the startling news that women are now allowed on the stage, a reality that threatens Kynaston’s career and identity.
However, the audience is actually witnessing a play within a play, “Compleat Female Stage Beauty,” and Ned Kynaston is performed by actor Benjamin Ismail.
Compleat Female Stage Beauty,” written by Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by Brian Harrower, will run until Feb. 5 at the intimate Big Idea Theatre in Sacramento.  The play is a timeless, comical and tragic story about the impact of gender in society and how to find our true selves; we must dare to remove our “masks.” The play stars company members Ismail as Kynaston and Kristine David as his rival, the first female stage actress: Margaret Hughes.
Ismail first came across the script for this play in 2004 as a student at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas.
"When I found it, I thought, ‘Oh my god! I have to do this someday!’ ” he said.
As a theater major with an emphasis in directing, Ismail proposed the play to his school, but the department declined because of the expense of the costumes.
Ten years later, Ismail finally gets to play what he considers to be the role of a lifetime.
“The script itself is just brilliant. The journey and the arc that Hatcher has written into it is a dream role.” he said. “I not only get to play Kynaston...but I get to play two Shakespeare roles that I would never get to play in real life because I’m not black, and I’m not a woman, so I get to play Othello and Desdemona.”
As a company member at Big Idea Theatre, Ismail had the chance to pitch three shows for the upcoming season.
“It was the first thing on the table,” he said.
But even then, it took a lot of campaigning to win the support of the theater.
“It’s a monster of a show. There are so many scene changes, so many costume changes and there’s so much going on, and we have a really small theatre here,” said Harrower, the director. “But it was such a good script, and I thought it was a really important story to tell.”
Five weeks and several lighting tricks later, the company managed to create a historic proscenium space, purchase 30 Restoration-era costumes on a budget of $500, and premiere the play to a receptive audience.
“That was kind of one of the challenges of making this piece, making sure that all of those elements were treated well and were given their full birth,” Harrower said. “It’s a very complete play. The first 45 minutes are almost completely a comedy. Then the next hour is a really serious drama and at the end it still manages to come out very redemptive.”
After finally playing the character that’s been in his pocket for more than six years, Ismail said that putting on the show has been quite an emotional journey.
“It’s quite a process for me,” he said. “I start getting ready for the show at 4:30 every day to start at 8, because I have to get everything pretty to be a woman or whatever...During rehearsals I’d get so into it that when the scene would be over, I just couldn’t shake it...I’m still discovering new things in the show. It has been hard to leave (Kynaston) at the theater, but I relish that."
Ismail added that it's not just his character that's layered with emotions, but the rest of the cast as well. 
"All of the characters have so much going on underneath the surface," he siad. "This show is very much about putting on a show whether or not you’re on stage.”
“Without what we do, who are we?” is a common question being asked throughout the play. Ismail said it’s a question he’s asked himself daily.
“Coming out in the south was a great experience for me,” he said sarcastically. “And I had to learn that lesson very quickly, that we’re not always what we do because, you know, I don’t have to be a stereotype. Kynaston doesn’t have to be a stereotype. We’re just people. No matter where we come from, we’re all people, and we’ve got that in common. ‘Why do we do the things that we do?’ That’s what every character is asking in this show.”
Performances of “Compleat Female Stage Beauty” are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. (Jan. 13, 14, 15, 20, 21, 22, 28, 29, Feb. 4, 5) and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. (Jan. 16, 23, 30).

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