Theater – Nell Gwynn

Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography for Folger Shakespeare Theatre

My issue with theatrical outings lately has been a lack of sleep, meaning I’m much more likely to fall asleep in my chair, which is not the way that I want things to turn out. It’s also a matter of most nights I would be happy to just stay at home and knit and watch TV, which is super boring, but fits in with the general lack of sleep and frustration when you have a sick baby at home. But this show – Nell Gwynn at the Folger – was one that the Boy decided he really wanted to see, and I was intrigued, and the evening of our tickets, everything began to fall together where the baby was less sick, and I was slightly less tired, and it looked like everything would work out well.

Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography for Folger Shakespeare Theatre

Which it did, and it turns out that this show was the perfect sort of antidote to the crummy mood that illness, cold and too much snow had put me in. It made me want to go out in the world again and learn more than I already know. But I’m getting ahead of myself – let me tell you about the play.

The focus of our story is one Nell Gwynn. She is a prostitute-turned-orange-seller at one of the two newly opened theaters (thanks King Charles II!). At the same time, the theaters are beginning to allow women on the stage, and Nell is given a chance to get up and prove herself. It turns out that despite not being able to read, she is a natural on the stage, and becomes immensely popular with both the theatre-going-people of London, and with the patron of her theatre – King Charles II himself! She ends up becoming his mistress, and I’ll let the rest of the story be a mystery, but guys – it’s good.

Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography for Folger Shakespeare Theatre

How good is it? It reminds me of a really good romantic comedy. And because it has the “women breaking into the theater” in historical times thing going on, it’s vaguely reminiscent of Shakespeare in Love, but the woman at the center of this story has more drive and agency. Nell is amazing, and this show makes her out to be the kind of quick-witted young woman that is thoroughly modern, while still rooted very much in her times.

Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography for Folger Shakespeare Theatre

A large part of that is due to the talents of one Alison Luff who plays Nell with both broad comedy and nuanced feeling when life is difficult and choices are not easy. Her face is so expressive, and her body language is so precise and dripping with meaning that I get the feeling this could have been a silent play and we would have all still gotten the meaning of every line. My other favorite actor in this show was her counterpart and lover – R.J. Foster as King Charles II. He too is able to command the room and evoke royalty and a regal air with just the way that he walks. It does not hurt that the costumes are lush and vibrant, and make you feel as if you could be in the Restoration, despite the fact that the stage itself is spare enough to allow for the multiple scene changes.

Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography for Folger Shakespeare Theatre

This show was such a breath of fresh air. It was romantic, and funny, and I felt like I learned a lot about an era in English history of which I was not completely informed. Everything about this show just clicked into place, and I am so glad that the Boy dragged me out of my winter hibernation to go see it. If you too are in a mood to not go anywhere, and need a bit of motivation, consider taking a trip to Capitol Hill to the Folger for this show. It is worth your time, and will no doubt brighten your outlook for days beyond.

Details: Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale. At the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003. Through March 10.

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