When Charles II was restored to the English throne in 1660, not only did he restore live theatre that had been banned during the Cromwell/Puritan reign, he declared the roles of women could and should in fact be played by women. During the same period and throughout the reign of William and Mary, women also began to write plays and see them produced, with two even being partners with a male counterpart in forming a successful theatre company.
Playwright, director, and dramaturg Michaela Gladhaber has researched extensively this period of Restoration theatre and has written a play detailing the strong-willed, daring, and revolutionary female actors and writers (along with a couple of male partners) who shook up and reshaped the world of English theatre in the late seventeenth century. Custom Made Theatre Co. and Those Women Productions co-present the world premiere of The Lady Scribblers in a production with historical significance done in the overblown, highly affected style one might have seen on the Restoration stage. The result is an intriguing, important story unknown by even many theatre buffs like me but one that loses some of its significance and sustaining draw by the preponderance of twirling hands in the air; overly silly and overdone expressions, and voices that are often anything but natural.
Three women writers gather at the grave of the recently passed Aphra Behn – one of the first English women to earn her living writing – and meet two women and one male actors, all rather effusive in their weeping, who too come to honor the great one. The six soon realize they are all looking for an alternative to the one operating theatre in London, the United Company at Drury Lane – a company run by a man who treats both his writers and his actors with high disdain and unlivable earnings. The three actors – Elizabeth Barry, Anne Bracegirdle, and Thomas Betteron (or the Three B’s, as they become known) – resolve to form their own, rival company and produce comedies and dramas by their new, women friends (Mary Pix, Delarivier Manley known just as “Delia,” and young Catherine Trotters).
But the owner/manager of Drury Lane, Christopher Rich, also arrives at Behn’s grave and immediately begins deriding “women like you [who] are writing for the stage which sends Chris Rich into a blinding rage.” A war of words ensues as two of the three B’s chime in:
“Now, for Actors, up speaks Mrs. Barry
Of scars from Rich that each of us carry,
You starve us, cheat us, beat us, and what’s more”
You desecrate the plays that we adore.”
And with likened declarations, the battles of more than just rhymed verse begin as the three upstarts seek the help of a theatre-loving Lord Farmington (and sometime love of dramatist Elizabeth Barry) to seek the Crown’s permission to open another theatre. Christopher Rich is not about to give in easily and is not hesitant to draw swords, kidnap the young Trotters, or call upon all sorts of devilry and mischief to thwart the plans for a rival theatre – one that quickly begins to attract his flock of upset actors and writers. Plans and plots along with real life drama that makes the actions on a typical stage seem tame in comparison take many twists and turns as history unfolds of a time when women’s rights, actors’ rights, and freedom of the arts all joined arms to fight a chauvinistic system and a diabolical male producer of theatre.
An ensemble of nine enthusiastically and passionately tells the story of these once heroes and villains of the stage, but the treatment given in script and direction (Tracy Ward) is that of a wild farce. The comedic approach works well when at one point there is a play within the play, and actors rehearse the first comedy to be staged by their new entity, the Players’ Company. However, as mentioned earlier, treating the heart of the story in the same comedic, manner does not do justice, in my opinion, to the interesting history it reveals. The characters too often become archetypal stereotypes even as they are portraying historical characters who blazed new trails for future actors and playwrights.
The nine actors overall play the parts quite convincingly in the style I am sure they have been directed. The dramatic actor Elizabeth Barry (Valerie Fachman) and the dramatist Delia (Oluchi Nwokocha) are both on the verge of tragedy in almost all that each says and does while the comedy actress Anne Bracegirdle (Emily Stone) rarely leaves her stage folly far behind her everyday life. Ted Zoldan’s Christopher Rich is a villain that would fit into a much-later, nineteenth-century melodrama while Michael Houston’s Lord Hammington is a foppish dandy to rival any of the counterparts on the stage of this period. But the exaggerated actions, the overblown language effects, and the general demeanor of Restoration comedy turns this story of theatre history too often into a farce that is not always all that funny, given the overall, unrealistic ridiculousness of the persona portrayed.
The one actor who anchors much of the story’s progress and does so in a manner that provides some humor but also more realism and believable emotions and motives is J.J. Van Name and her Mary Pix. My personal wish is that more of the cast had been directed to take her more measured approach, perhaps still allowing one character like Lord Farmington to retain his foppish air for ongoing humor, but with the remainder of the cast charged to recreate this moment in history in a manner more believable.
Rating: 3 E
The Lady Scribblers has closed due to COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo Credits: Jay Yamada