Nell Gwynn, the newest play at the Folger which debuted last week, puts you in mind of some of the best clichés to honor and celebrate strong women (#GirlPower, #YouGoGirl, #LadyBoss, #WhoRunTheWorld), making you want to shout them unironically as you clap your hands off. That is how good this play is.
Nell Gwynn, groundbreaking actress and mistress of King Charles II, is played with luminous joy and intensity by Allison Luff. Set in Restoration England, the play is a Valentine to the magic of an independent woman and charismatic performer who helped introduce women to the English stage and therefore changed the way theater was performed in Britain and across the world. Although there are not enough comprehensive details available about Nell Gwynn to make this play a faithful retelling of her life, playwright Jessica Swale brought as much history as she could into the script, creating a solid and intriguing female character that the real Nell Gwynn would have probably loved to play.
While hawking oranges during performances at the King’s Company theater, Nell’s witty and easy repartee catches the eye and ear of one of the players in the company, Mr. Hart (played with empathy and sweetness by Quinn Franzen). He then decides to take Nell under his wing and teach her the trade of acting. The timing is fortuitous, because a rival company is introducing an “actoress” at about the same time, and keeping up with the trends is an essential part of any creative venture, in this century as well as in the 17th.
The less that can be said about the plot and its particulars here is the better to get you to experience this wonderful play for yourself. The ensemble cast is as close to perfect as you can get, bringing the entire audience to laughter over and over, all while making it look easy. There is a scene at the very end which is so incredibly funny, you may have to hold your stomach because it’ll hurt from laughing so hard. By the way, you may also get a sudden urge to learn the lost art of fan communication. Edward (Christopher Dinolfo), playing an actor who specializes in women, gives such a marvelous primer, I can almost guarantee you’ll Google “fan language” during intermission. (I got you a fun link here, just in case).
As with all Folger productions, great care and attention is also paid to the details. The costumes, designed by Maria Anzaldo Hale, are particularly beautiful as well as functional, and the story that is told in the dressing and undressing of the characters is a poignant metaphor that ties the play together in a subtle but meaningful way.
Nell Gwynn is playing at the Folger Theater through March 10. For more tickets and information you can click here. Mark your calendars for several special nights that offer discounts or opportunities to talk to the cast, which you can find here. The Folger box office offers several discounts, but they are only available by calling 202-544-7077 from 12 noon to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday.