In Shakespeare's time, all female roles were played by men (often boy apprentices), who learned to create an idealized version of femininity onstage. This practice continued throughout the Jacobean era until the theatres were closed by Oliver Cromwell in 1642. When Charles II returned from his exile on the continent in 1661, the theatres reopened and actors initially resumed the tradition of men-as-women. But the new monarch had an appreciation for women onstage and the old practice was quickly abolished.
In COMPLEAT FEMALE STAGE BEAUTY, local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has imagined this period as a complicatEd Battle of the sexes, vying for control of the English stage. London's most popular performer is a man named Edward Kynaston (Wade Vaughn) who has made his fame playing tragic heroines - Juliet, Ophelia, and especially Desdemona. But when a rival theatre stages Othello with a woman as Desdemona, London goes wild for the idea of women playing women. As these new "actresses" rise to fame, Kynaston sinks into the depths of despair - until he discovers a different use for his talents in this new theatrical world.
The historical shift from men-as-women to women-as-women marks our culture's first major step into a truly modern, realistic theatre and an early instance of society recognizing women's professional ambitions. Jeffrey Hatcher has found a clever way to dramatize this cultural shift, following a lone actor's journey through this wonderfully tumultuous time.
The story of Edward Kynaston begins May 18.