Actresses Define an Era in “Playhouse Creatures”

Andrew San Photography

Andrew San Photography

Presented by Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company
By April DeAngelis
Directed by Anna Trachtman

August 1 – 17, 2014
The Factory Theatre
Boston, MA
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Review by Gillian Daniels

(Boston) Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company puts on the sort of historical play I love. Playhouse Creatures looks at the Restoration Era with new eyes, examining the lives of actors Mary Betteron (Christine Power), Ms. Marshall (Janelle Mills), Nell Gwyn (Emily White), and Ms. Farley (Emma Goodman) as they take to the English stage once women are lawfully allowed to act again. Their agendas diverge wildly: they do it for money, fame, or unbridled joy. Regardless, the show is a delicious exploration of what women looking to make art do when faced with a patriarchal society.

The play largely, though not specifically, follows Nell Gwyn’s entry into the acting world. She is amazed at the successes of Mrs. Betteron, Marshall, and Farley, but Nell’s own talents earn her a reputation as the defining comic actress of the period and, eventually, Charles II’s mistress. White plays her with such enthusiasm, the play could have easily been about Nell’s triumphs and tribulations and little else. Still, it’s nice others get to shine, like Mills’ Marshall, escaping the ugliness of a bad romance, or Goodman’s acidic Farley.

Playhouse Creatures wants to paint the portrait of an era rather than a person so the viewpoint and the narrator seem to shift from scene to scene. I admire the effect, that not one character dominates the show, but it does less to illustrate the period than make the show feel unfocused. Are we entering the theater world the way the naïve Nell Gwyn is or are we more remote observers, like Doll Common (Maureen Adduci), the woman who cleans the theater and pauses to address the audience about the fighting bears her father once managed?

I feel sympathetic toward everyone on some level, particularly when the deeply talented Mrs. Betterton deals with aging in a world that values young women, but telling every story at once make it feels cluttered. The most organic side story to the play is that of Mrs. Barry (Caroline Rose Markham, with excellent range) and her difficult relationship with the Earl of Rochester (David Berger-Jones) as she seeks to fulfill her dream of being an actress. Less natural is the story of Farley, whose arc lapses into difficulties that seem to be shaped as a punishment for her earlier dismissal of other characters; Goodman carries the part on wonderfully, though.

One problem is that Playhouse Creatures really isn’t one story but multiple stories layered on top of one another. The material is so engrossing and dense, there’s enough here for a series of shows exploring these amazing women. Scenes that don’t seem to advance the plot but certainly define the characters, like a hilariously staged swordfight between cross-dressing actresses or an uttering of the witches’ spell from Macbeth, overshadow the rest of the show. These are brilliant moments that writer April DeAngelis and director Anna Trachtman put forward, scenes that show women clawing themselves out of the Dark Ages even as the rest of the world would prefer they dissolve into the background. Despite its flaws, Playhouse Creatures is a powerful show and a defining play for Maiden Phoenix.

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