Compleat Female Stage Beauty, a funny, thought-provoking, gender-bending, almost pitch-black comedy by Jeffrey Hatcher, is currently bumping across the stage at Circuit Playhouse. But not in the bumping and grinding sort of way. Nope. Just in a bumpy sort of jarring way. It's not a graceful production at all, even if Jerre Dye, as Edward Kynaston, the show's lead character, is the very portrait of grace and physical control.
Stage Beauty is also one of those rare shows that audiences may or may not know but which immediately gets Memphis thespians all aflutter. Not only is it the sort of rare, juicy, character-driven script that actors love to tackle and talk about, this particular production also boasts the long overdue return to the stage of Dye, a celebrated local performer whose extraordinary gifts as an actor have gone untapped for years while he pursued other interests as a set designer, writer, director, fund-raiser, and goodness only knows what all else.
The multitalented Dye, younger brother to John Dye of Touched by an Angel fame, has spent the past several seasons devoting the bulk of his energies to growing his company Voices of the South, a small professional troupe dedicated to developing original and narrative works that are often garnished with a Southern accent.
In Stage Beauty, Dye is exceptional as Kynaston, a 17th-century British actor who specialized in presenting Shakespeare's tragic and comic female roles during a time when women were forbidden to act. Dye deserves whatever praise may come his way. The physical control he displays when presenting Desdemona's speeches and parrying with Michael Gravois' hysterically indifferent take on Othello is inspiring and alone worth the cost of admission.
The nearly but not quite tragic story takes its darkest turn when, by royal decree, women are finally given permission to perform on stage, and Kynaston is beaten, pelted with bags of shit, and driven out of his profession for desiring to play, and excelling at, female roles. And, of course, for being a filthy bum.
There are some wickedly funny lines aimed directly at thespians in the audience, and for this past Friday night's performance of Compleat Female Stage Beauty, there was a group of actors in the audience who sat in a close bunch, laughed louder than anybody else, and leapt to their feet in a standing ovation as soon as the play's last words were spoken.
Compleat Female Stage Beauty is destined to be overcelebrated by the theater community. And that's too bad, because Hatcher's play is full of potential and doesn't need an amen corner. There's enough talent in Circuit's cast to blow the doors off of the theater, but despite Dye's performance and some wonderful moments provided by Gravois, Stage Beauty bumped along in a series of gloomy fits and uneven starts.
Director Dave Landis' take on the show is too slow and too sloppily organic by half. This is a play that's built around formal stage conventions, and the lackadaisical pacing mars the production.
Many of the characters, particularly King Charles, his whore Nell Gwynne, and the foppish Sir Charles Sedley are presented by the playwright as broadly drawn clown roles, but only Ann Marie Gideon's very funny Nell is actually presented that way. The rest are given to us somewhat realistically, making the dim-seeming bulbs whose every line is a laugh-er seem way too piteous and rather difficult to mock.
But Gravois is back in top form in the role of Thomas Betterton, a besieged actor manager who's just trying to keep his theater afloat.
There's nothing wrong with a simple set, but Nick Chapman's unadorned series of raised platforms doesn't even look intentionally minimal. It just looks unfinished or intentionally ugly.
Compleat Female Stage Beauty is at Circuit through May 18th. Should the actors ever find the show's groove and fall into it instead of clanking about from scene to bumpy scene, this show could very well grow into something worth talking about yet.