Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Nell Gwynn
Folger Theatre
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's reviews of Broadway Center Stage: The Music Man, Ain't Misbehavin', Three Sistahs, and Kleptocracy and report on The 2019 Helen Hayes Awards Nominees

Alison Luff
Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography
Nell Gwynn, actress and mistress of England's King Charles II, may have lived in the late 17th century, but as created by playwright Jessica Swale and portrayed by Alison Luff at the Folger Theater in Washington, she's very much a modern woman and great fun to watch.

Swale wrote Nell Gwynn as a commission for Shakespeare's Globe in London; the Folger production is its U.S. East Coast premiere. Here is another case of allowing a notable woman to tell her own story: people who know the name only as a royal mistress don't realize that Nell was a pioneer, one of the first women to perform on the British stage, and she accomplished that through talent and bravery.

First, a bit of historical background. Charles II (R.J. Foster) went into exile in Europe following the execution of his father, Charles I, in 1649. After the death of the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell, he returned to take the throne. Theaters, which had been shut down during Puritan rule, reopened and the king issued a royal decree requiring that, for the first time, women ("actor-esses") play female roles onstage.

Director Robert Richmond has a fluid command of Swale's dialogue and keeps the action flowing among a succession of scenes. At the beginning of the play, Nell is an orange seller in the theater of the King's Men. After seeing Nell take on an audience member who insults one of the actors during a performance, lead actor Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen) finds her captivating and invites her to join the troupe. Edward Kynaston (Christopher Dinolfo), a famed performer of women's roles, is dismissive that any actual woman could play those roles as well as he, but Nell soon proves herself.

Luff sparkles throughout the play as Nell navigates the tricky currents of theatrical success and royal attention. Having come from a squalid background—her mother (Catherine Flye) kept a brothel—she understands compromise and taking care of herself. She questions the company's playwright, John Dryden (Michael Glenn), about character motivation and suggests that real women are capable of more nuanced characterizations than men playing women.

Foster brings extensive detail to his portrayal of the "merry monarch" derided in his own time as indecisive and shallow ("Maybe my legacy will be one of indecision. Maybe," he says). Charles loves art and beauty, including many women, but he understands how Nell's outspokenness sets her apart from the flatterers and influence-seekers. Dinolfo is amusing as an actor who never breaks character and Franzen presents Hart as a man who knows, and admires, talent when he sees it.

Tony Cisek's scenic design uses red brocade curtains and elegant furniture to convey a series of onstage and offstage locations. Costume designer Mariah Anzaldo Hale has created an expansive palette of fine dress for the royal court, elaborate stage costumes (including one memorable hat), and the rougher clothes for the lower classes.

Folger Theatre
Nell Gwynn
January 29th - March 10th, 2019
By Jessica Swale
Lady Castlemaine, Louise de Kéroualle: Regina Aquino
Rose Gwynn: Caitlin Cisco
Musician: Kevin Collins
Edward Kynaston: Christopher Dinolfo
Nancy, Ma Gwynn: Catherine Flye
King Charles II: R.J. Foster
Charles Hart: Quinn Franzen
John Dryden: Michael Glenn
Thomas Killigrew: Nigel Gore
Lord Arlington: Jeff Keogh
Nell Gwynn: Alison Luff
Ned Spigget: Alex Michell
Queen Catherine, Musician: Zoe Speas
Directed by Robert Richmond
Folger Shakespeare Library, Elizabethan Theatre
201 E. Capitol St., SE
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-544-7077 or