Eleanor (“Nell”) Gwynn may have been ahead of her own Restoration-era time and place, but she doesn’t seem to hold up or carry over quite so well in our current #MeToo day and age.
Gwynn (1650-1687), a formerly impoverished fruit vendor and unabashed prostitute, became an unlikely celebrity in her later years: first as a popular actress on the London stage, and then as the cheeky mistress-in-residence at the palace of King Charles II. She gained a renowned reputation for her liberated, open-minded attitudes about sex and personal freedom — at least by 17th-century standards, long before anyone had ever heard of feminism or gender equality.
As excitedly portrayed by Atlanta newcomer Courtney Moors in Synchronicity Theatre’s “Nell Gwynn” (by Jessica Swale), the character comes across as more endearing than enduring. Under the guidance of the prominent actor Charles Hart, her mentor and lover, Nell breaks new ground as one of the first women (or “actor-esses”) to integrate the theater, where the female roles had always been played by men in drag.
Much of Swale’s broadly comedic emphasis trades in behind-the-scenes shenanigans and theatrical in-jokes, featuring protracted rehearsal sequences or deliberately amateurish histrionics, and heavy on the double-entendres and sexual innuendoes. The production is pitched at a lively clip and with a knowing wink by the veteran director Richard Garner (who previously staged Synchronicity’s stately “Anne Boleyn”).
It’s also presented in a suitably modest style that’s fairly indicative of a show from that period. Kat Conley’s minimal scenic design, for instance, utilizes old-fashioned painted backdrops to suggest a theater or the palace, rather than ornamental set pieces or newfangled projections.
While Moors’ hyperactive turn in the title role strikes the right tone in terms of capturing the bawdy and boisterous qualities of the character, it’s one-note in the sense that she could probably use more in the way of dramatic contrast or emotional nuance. Even in a rare moment of profound grief, she’s a bit loud and over the top, when some restraint might be in order.
Co-stars Eugene H. Russell IV and Rob Shaw-Smith essentially serve that purpose and provide that balance with their excellent supporting performances as her two Charleses, the nurturing Hart and the ennobling King, respectively. Brandon Partrick is solid, too, as the playwright John Dryden, and the ever-versatile Jasmine Thomas (virtually unrecognizable as the same actress who appeared in Horizon’s “Citizens Market” and Theatre du Reve’s “The Little Prince”) scores again in dual parts as a pair of other royal paramours.
Eventual concerns about the political intrigues, scheming underlings and “winds of dissent” threatening the monarchy are somewhat beside Swale’s larger points about Nell as a kind of pre-feminist trailblazer — finding her voice, learning to think for herself, transcending her social status, bringing a new perspective to the theatrical profession, and having to choose between her career and her not-so-private love life.
As their romance blossoms, Nell extols the virtues of living in the here and now, while Charles II argues the value of how his legacy will be remembered. Essentially sleeping her way to the top, she reportedly died of syphilis-related causes — and although the play doesn’t follow her story through to that bitter end, it still makes you wonder, perhaps inadvertently, about what once defined a role model and her so-called claim to fame.
Through Oct. 21. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays; 8 p.m. Monday (Oct. 15 only). $25-$41 (Monday and Wednesday shows are pay-what-you-can). Synchronicity Theatre, 1545 Peachtree St. NW (in the Peachtree Pointe complex), Atlanta. 404-484-8636, synchrotheatre.com.
Bottom line: Habitually boisterous.
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