Theater Artists Olympia’s “Playhouse Creatures,” opening Friday (Feb. 17), examines what it was like to be an actress during the Restoration, when English women were allowed to perform on stage.
Though there are funny moments, April De Angelis’ 1993 play reveals how precarious life in the theater was in the 1600s.
By the decree of King Charles II, women were allowed to play women. (Previously, boys had filled the female roles.) But there were few good roles for women of a certain age — a problem that continues today, “Playhouse Creatures” director Michael Christopher said.
Trying to fill that void here in Olympia was part of what drew him to “Playhouse Creatures.”
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“You have all these really wonderful roles for actresses, and this really interesting period in theatrical history,” he said.
Most of those roles — including Nell Gwyn (Jesse Morrow), a famed actress and one of the king’s mistresses — are historical characters. Playing the other actresses are Kate Ayers, Heather Christopher and Dana Winter.
“It’s history presented in a way that’s very enjoyable and very entertaining,” said Lanita Grice, who plays Doll Common, the play’s only fictional character, who dresses the actresses, plays bit parts and serves as a sort of narrator.
“I know some people didn’t enjoy history in school and will think, ‘It’s history. It’s going to be boring.’ It’s not at all,” Grice said.
After throwing off the restrictions of the Puritans, society went wild. People threw rotten fruits and vegetables at the theater and expected to be allowed backstage to watch the players undress.
“This is a very bawdy time in history,” Grice said. “The king was a notorious womanizer. He was a total sleazeball.”
Having liaisons with powerful men was a necessary condition of being a successful actress, and most of those depicted in the play were involved at some point with the king.
“These were very strong women, but at the same time, their choices were pretty limited,” Grice said.
On the stage, then as now, sexiness sold.
“ ‘Oh, look, they’re wearing corsets, and they’re having a sword fight. I want to go see that.’ That mentality existed back in 1660, and it still exists today,” Christopher said.
Yes, there will be a sword fight conducted in corsets, along with other scenes from plays of the era, including Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.”
Much of the humor comes from those glimpses of Restoration theater.
“The acting style then was very different,” Grice said. “It was highly stylized. Most of the snippets from other plays are highly funny, just because of the exaggeration.”
What: Theater Artists Olympia presents April De Angelis’ 1993 drama about the lives of actresses during the 17th century, when women were allowed to perform onstage in England.
When: 8 p.m. Friday (Feb. 17), Saturday, Feb. 24-25 and March 3-4; 2:30 p.m. Feb. 26.
Where: The Midnight Sun Performance Space, 113 N. Columbia St., Olympia.
Tickets: $15, $12 for students and seniors.