Sweet Painted Ladies

In 1669, English theater houses were still just experimenting with allowing women on stage. Rascally King Charles II had liberalized the country's theater-licensing policies nine years earlier, but some theaters still employed males only, using boy players in female roles. Playhouse Creatures is an inquiry into the lives of some of these first English actresses. And because that sounds dull, I'm gonna get right to the endorsement: Playhouse Creatures is the best thing the Women's Theatre Project has done in years, and maybe ever.

Playwright April De Angelis is so in sync with her characters that you'd think the 1600s happened last week, and the actresses treat her words like treasured gifts. They perform a work that so plainly gratifies them, that so obviously commands their respect and excites their sensibilities, that the show itself is almost unimportant. Some theatergoers will find the actresses' all-declamatory-all-the-time style of delivery entirely too over-the-top, but I disagree: The 1600s were a declamatory time. Just partaking in the diffuse air of giddiness in the leaky old theater is well worth the $25 ticket price.

Honest, unselfconscious laughter in a theater is rare, even in a comedy, and Playhouse Creatures has you LOLing within seconds. But it isn't a comedy. The surrealistic first scene is dark as hell: An old woman, Doll (Jude Parry, of Gold Coast Theatre), unspools her long memory of the place that was here before the theater. It was a bear pit, where her father whipped the captive animals until they danced and men threw money. There is something dead and awful in the way Doll explains this, like the misery these bears once caused has somehow come to rule her whole life. She says she can still hear the bears' cries, but as she pauses to listen, it's not bears we hear but the offstage chatter of the actresses whose stories we've come to hear.

Then the moment's done, and onstage is a young woman named Mrs. Farley (Kim Morgan Dean), who is trying to make a little money as a street corner preacher. The mood brightens, and what follows is a first act that finds both Mrs. Farley and a bar wench named Nell (Christine Blair) becoming stars of the stage. They perform alongside a young, established actress named Mrs. Marshall (Dania Aguero) and a seasoned theatrical vet named Mrs. Betterton (Linda Bernard). The women's backstage and onstage drama is fun to see — watch their bawdy takes on Antony & Cleopatra; watch the jostling of their grossly inflated egos. The first act is so gaily entertaining that it drives the horrible scene about the bears from memory. If you do remember it, the darkness it conjures seems out of place until after intermission. It's only then that the grim outside world intrudes on the actresses' happy lives and Playhouse Creatures turns suddenly icy: from lightest comic farce to nightmarish human tragedy.

Mrs. Betterton, the most committed artist on the stage, is slowly pushed from the limelight to make room for younger, sexier, more profitable, and far less talented players. Nell, Mrs. Farley, and Mrs. Marshall are alternately corrupted or destroyed by their dalliances with powerful men. In the first act, we had the sense that these women were safe to pursue their own desires within the theater. They thought so too. Discovering otherwise is shocking for all involved.

The powerful second act drives home the point that there is little distance between the actresses and the doomed bears of Doll's childhood, and it gives each of the actresses an opportunity to flex their dramatic muscles. Linda Bernhard's final monologue, in which she briefly channels Lady Macbeth, can haunt you all the way home. But if Playhouse Creatures has any problems, this is where you'll find them. Someone should cut a few moments out of the middle and speed the way to Bernhard's speech and Doll's doom-laden epilogue. It's terrible to feel antsy with such wonderful drama lying in wait, but it can't be helped — somewhere in the gathering darkness of the second act, something begins sapping the momentum of Playhouse Creatures, and at the end of it, my admiration for the players was mingled with relief that it was finally over.

But the relief had as much to do with the soul-draining intensity of the production as with De Angelis' editorial failures. In the play, it takes Doll a whole life of toil and introspection to understand the poisoned blessing of being a privileged, kept creature in a world you don't own. De Angelis breaks it down in a night. In the end, it's hard to know if the actresses played by the actresses believe they're performing their own doom or living it — or if the artifice can be untangled from the tragedy at all.

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Brandon K. Thorp