Nell Gwynn @ ChicagoShakes

3 Stars out of 4

It was a difficult week, where all over America we were glued to a screen, hearing a woman’s story in the halls of power, so it was an incredible relief to head to Navy Pier to watch another woman’s story, in another era’s halls of power ( Restoration England), and blessedly, this was a ribald comedy.  Chicago Shakes has brought Jessica Swale’s Olivier Award winning best new comedy Nell Gwynn across the pond. This fast paced and very funny play is also about consent and sex, and how that interacts with an all male power structure.

Scarlett Strallen brings the dynamo heroine and folk hero to life with sparkling joy. Her sense of fun is infectious.  The historic Nell, born Eleanor Gwyn around 1650 most likely in London was purportedly raised in a brothel.  By all accounts, she was clever and funny and charismatic. And her timing was perfect: when Charles II was restored to the British throne he reinstated theatres which had been banned during the Cromwells, and he legalized woman as actors.  The play begins with Gwynn selling oranges to theatre goers in the West End.  Her comic timing is noticed by actor Charles Hart (a sincere John Tufts) who tutors her in acting (and becomes her lover) and she makes her stage debut.  Historically, Gwynn became a star in the newly created form of restoration comedy, which made her a celebrity. She comes the attention of her theatre company’s patron, the King himself, and she negotiates an arrangement to become his mistress.  Politics continues to be the river that the the characters float on, with Larry Yando’s  Lord Arlington evoking every White House Chief of Staff of the last two years, while remaining stuffily Restoration. Hopefully government advisors today don’t threaten and wound family members of those who will not kowtow.  Gwynn gets him back and has him appointed the Royal Dog Walker.  There is an actual King Charles spaniel on this stage, but the dog does not steal the show nearly as effectively as Natalie West, who plays Nancy, Nell’s dresser.  Hollis Resnick has the ultimate Yin and Yang part: playing both the repressed and ascetic Queen Catherine and as well as Nell’s mother, the alcoholic brothel madam. It is remarkable, and heartening to see so many strong female characters in this show.

Director Christopher Luscombe is a strong ally in telling the tale, but I could not help wishing that this woman’s biography written by a woman playwright would have been directed by a woman director. Luscombe keeps the pace brisk and manages to pull us through an ambivalent ending: Nell is so alive but the script never lets us really see her depth, so the final speech feels like the fuel runs out. In addition, Swale has created most of the male characters as plot points. Gwynn’s relationship with the King is not fully developed beyond him needing her.  Timothy Edward Kane’s Charles II tries to stretch into a King who is not a caricature, but he is constrained.  David Bedella has the richest part: he is the Edward Kynaston, the male actor playing women, and he is given some delicious monologues and the freedom to take it over the top.

This is a wonderful evening of entertainment about an interesting and little known character: it’s going to make a marvelous movie (and it’s in development)  Nell Gywnn is a lovely counterpoint to everything that is going on in our world.  It is a show with deep healing laughs.  As I headed home though, I did muse that we as a culture need to evolve to a place where womans lives can be story worthy for so much more than the sex they do or do not want to have, and we can see and hear those stories everywhere.  

Grab your besties and head to the pier: Nell Gwynn is running Tuesday through Sunday at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s  Yard on Navy Pier until November 4th. For tickets and information go to  or call 312-596-5600.