The Life and Death Nell

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Bella Merlin as Nell Gwynne

When that famously good-looking man Terence Stamp was offered the role of a drag queen in the film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, he became enamored with the idea of “becoming” a beautiful woman. After the makeup artists did their work, he looked in the mirror and was devastated. He asked if that was the best they could do, and this, they ruefully admitted, was that. Stamp’s disappointment was such that he briefly gave up the job. One can’t blame him; a man just isn’t a woman. I confess that if women had never been allowed to portray their own sex onstage, I would have a hard time with my own work of watching lots of plays.

I have Oliver Cromwell to thank: if his reign as Puritan Number One hadn’t been so repressive and altogether un-fun, the pendulum of society probably wouldn’t have swung so far the other way (following his demise) as to reinstate the pastime of theatrical amusement and, further, to undo England’s longstanding convention that men play all the parts. To wit, a royal charter of 1665:

“We do likewise permit and give leave that all women’s parts may henceforth be performed by women, so long as these recreations be not scandalous or offensive…”

So: thanks to the regicidal dictator, and double thanks to the dead king’s son for having such a taste for the ladies. The commoner Nell Gwynne was famous among them, his mistress for almost twenty years after the playboy King Charles II saw her in a play and invited her out for drinks, as one does. Thank you, thank you.

If national pride is a point of honor for an American writer/performer of female empowerment monologues at this year’s Hollywood Fringe, I’d recommend she not see Bella Merlin’s show, Nell Gwynne: A Dramatick Essaye on Acting and Prostitution. This biographical diversion on the loves and work of a Restoration actress and concubine is so well-rendered as to scandalize and offend many a rival American who finds out that the author and actor, and her excellent director Miles Anderson, were born elsewhere – in England and Southern Rhodesia, respectively. Worse: they work here now. And, ’od’s codfish, Nelly, they probably out-thrust you by a rapier’s length. This remarkable work has been conceived and executed, entire, since February of this year.

Not only does this entertainment entertain – as Gwynne, Merlin speaks the speech, plays the lute, capers to its lascivious pleasing, sings, impersonates, and charms, utterly – it employs history, context, and theatrical device to illustrate the rise of woman in the English-speaking world, from housewife or comical-tragical whore to working professional and philosophical-intellectual equal. You can see many a one-woman show attempt this trick at many a fringe and bore, or trivialize, or rant boringly and trivially.

As engineered by the author and her director, the piece lightly carries the heaviness of social import. The story of the second sex has rarely been essayed so convincingly and enjoyably as in this tale of an urchin who raised herself from concessions-wench to King’s Consort and celebrity actor who prompted the perennially peevish Samuel Pepys to write, “So great a performance of comical part was never before in the world I believe – as Nell do this.”

Of course, actors are the least satisfied of artists, and Merlin takes pains to show Gwynne’s longing for the dramatic parts; here she plays bits from Hamlet and Richard III, among others. It is a balm to hear John Dryden spoken from a stage in Los Angeles, and Lord Rochester, the illuminative Pepys, and Gwynne herself in passages from letters dictated by the royal cunny, who was illiterate though bosom friends with Aphra Behn (yes, the Restoration Rover shows up here, on your radar for perhaps the first time since that Women’s Literature survey course). Merlin spices the tale with the shit-strewn London of the day, including Gwynne’s takes on the plague of 1665, the fire of 1666 (“Molten lead poured off the roof of St Paul’s cathedral. Windows wept glass”), and the pizzles of lords pissing on passersby.

The imagery of the language is framed by a delightful physical design. Allison-Marie Molnaa sets a well-appointed period stage upon which Jason Estala’s costumes and technologies look very pretty under Molnaa’s tasteful, evocative lights and sound. Taking my seat before the show, I mentioned to critic Paul Birchall: “This is more give-a-damn than I’ve seen at Fringe this year;” this, though I’ve seen some good ones. Go see if you can name one to top it, and I’ll find you a bawd to handle your prick.

Nell Gwynne: A Dramatick Essaye on Acting and Prostitution

plays at the Complex’s Ruby Theatre, 6476 Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, on:

Friday June 12 at 9 p.m.

Thursday June 18 at 5 p.m.

Friday June 19 at 9 p.m.

Wednesday June 24 at 9 p.m.

Saturday June 27 at 8:30 p.m.

for tickets visit www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/2162