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Folger’s ‘Nell Gwynn’ is madcap historical backstage story

Snappy Euro import is broad, bawdy and rife with innuendo

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Nell Gwynn review, gay news, Washington Blade
Alison Luff as Nell in Folger Theatre’s production of Jessica Swale’s comedy Nell Gwynn. (Photo by Brittany Dilibrto; courtesy Folger)

‘Nell Gwynn’ 
Through March 10
Folger Theatre 
201 E. Capitol St. SE 
$42-85
202-544-7077

Nell Gwynn. The name is more than a theatrical history footnote. She was the longtime lover of a king and among the first women to stride the English stage. 

It’s the 1660s. After a dozen years of Puritan rule, monarchy is restored. And under theater-loving King Charles II, London show biz is in full swing again. A part of that means allowing women, not just men, to play female characters. Pretty, witty Nell Gwynn is in the right place at the right time.

Her story (or close to it) is currently being told at Folger Theatre in Jessica Swale’s 2015 comedy with music, aptly titled “Nell Gwynn.” 

After sumptuous crimson curtains part, we meet our lowborn heroine selling oranges, and sometimes herself, at King’s Theater. Feisty and good looking, she catches the eye of the company’s handsome leading man Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen). Whether impelled by lust or interest in incipient talent, Hart deigns to teach Nell the fundamentals of hammy acting. She’s a natural: Luff’s Nell cries on command. 

At Duke’s Theater (the competition), ticket sales skyrocket after a woman is cast in their latest offering. In response, King’s Theater’s seasoned manager Thomas Killigrew (Nigel Gore) pushes saucy Nell on the boards. Her propitious debut prompts Hart to exalt: “They’ve never seen anything like it. You were luminous. And you were real. A real woman. … It changes everything.” 

And indeed, it does. Never one to overlook a pretty woman, King Charles (a gloriously bewigged R.J. Foster) wastes no time in meeting Nell and makes her an offer she eventually cannot refuse. And as her acting star rises, Nell demands dim, derivative resident playwright John Dryden (reliably funny Michael Glenn) write more significant parts for women. 

As played by lovely Luff, it’s easy to see why both king and audience are smitten. There’s none of the confusion that surrounds Edward’s obsession with Mrs. Simpson, or another Charles’s attraction to the woman whom his first wife dubbed the rotteweiler, but I digress. Graceful with a flair for the ribald, Luff radiates warmth and intelligence. 

Swale’s play, a big hit across the pond, is a double-barreled backstage story. Madcap happenings and debate in the theater’s dressing room include former leading lady Edward Kynaston, played by local out actor Christopher Dinolfo, who rails against his relegation to playing female walk-ons, skimpy parts he endows with elaborate backstories. Also, on hand for Nell’s meteoric ascent are faithful costume mistress Nancy (Catherine Flye), Nell’s scrappy sister Rose (the excellent Caitlin Cisco) and happy-go-lucky young actor Ned Spigget (Alex Michell).  

Meanwhile at court, King Charles, insatiable cocksman and circumspect politician, successfully juggles an angry Queen Catherine (Zoe Speas), ambitious mistress Lady Castlemaine (Regina Aquino) and scheming advisor Lord Arlington (Jeff Keogh). Unexpected visitors include Nell’s gin-soaked mother (again Flye) and a new French mistress (also Aquino). Despite the insanity, Nell finds love. 

The humor is broad, bawdy and rife with innuendo. The King’s Theater acting troupe might have easily been played by the cast of British TV’s “Are You Being Served?” with a young Lulu guest starring as Nell. 

Though some gags are interminably milked, it’s a mostly light but engaging work whose enjoyable score sets racy lyrics to catchy melodies.  

Through the laughs, Swales portrays Nell as a groundbreaking player who helps define women’s role in theater. Director Robert Richmond’s able staging includes haunting sequences that reveal the other Nell — an artist with an inner life, enormously loyal and capable of falling in love. 

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Theater

‘Hamilton’ star boosting Afro-Latinx, queer representation

Gonzalez and partner launch DominiRican Productions

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Pierre Jean Gonzalez (Photo courtesy Ambe J. Photography)

‘Hamilton’
Through Oct. 9
The Kennedy Center Opera House
2700 F St., N.W.
$59–$399
Kennedy-center.org

For gay Latinx actor Pierre Jean Gonzalez, playing the title Founding Father in the national tour of “Hamilton” isn’t just another part.

“It’s a powerful thing,” says Gonzalez, recognizing the enormity of the job. “We all learned history in school. We know who’s who when we look at a textbook; but when people who look like you are telling the story, it shifts.”

Currently moored to the Kennedy Center Opera House through Oct. 9, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s seminal 2015 sung-and-rapped through musical presents early American history in a novel and inclusive way, focusing on the life experience of one man. With 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the show continues to be the hottest draw in town wherever it pitches its tent. 

“When I step on stage as Hamilton, I’m continually amazed by the pandemonium in the audience, especially the younger fans. If we miss a single lyric, the children know,” he says. 

“It’s a drama, a soap, and an action movie. An ambitious immigrant, Hamilton pushes through obstacles, creates his own narrative, and doesn’t throw away a shot. Audiences like that.”

Reared in a housing project in the Bronx as the only boy in a Dominican/Puerto Rican family it wasn’t cool to be queer, says Gonzalez, 34. So, he played it straight until his second year at Rutgers University when a comfortably out friend inspired him to follow suit. Back at home, the family wasn’t all that surprised, he adds with a chuckle.

Navigating through life as his authentic self gives Gonzalez a leg up. He explains, “I think feeling more connected and open makes me a better actor.”

As a drama student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Gonzalez spent a life-altering junior year studying Shakespeare at the Globe in London: “For me the metronome, cadence, the words and music in ‘Hamilton’ are very much connected to Shakespeare, and that’s why I’m here now.”

After school, despite finding an agent and auditioning, those first four years weren’t good. “For a Latinx actor with my look there were three roles: thug #3, a dishwasher, or hitman.”

He was dismayed. Despite possessing training, talent, energy, and good looks, casting agents didn’t see him as a leading man. But with “Hamilton,” the industry changed and so did Gonzalez’s self-perception: “Finally, I knew I was the right choice to play a leading man.”

In total, Gonzalez has toured with “Hamilton” for five years counting 18 months of “pandemic nothingness,” he says. Before being promoted to playing Alexander Hamilton in August of 2021, he was standby, covering Hamilton, Burr (the villain) and Britain’s King George. At a moment’s notice he might have been called on to play one of three tracks. “It was turning me on artistically,” he says. “One of the last crazy days before the pandemic, I was Hamilton for a Saturday matinee and that same evening I was Burr. Not a lot of actors can say that.”

During the early days of the pandemic and before, Gonzalez and his fiancé Cedric Leiba Jr., an Afro-Latino actor, had many conversations surrounding career frustrations. They discussed the challenges faced by actors of color, and how those challenges can be compounded when said actors are also queer.

In 2020, the couple founded DominiRican Productions, an award-winning film production company whose mission is to ramp up Afro-Latinx and queer representation both behind and in front of the camera.

“It kind of happened as a protest,” he explains. “George Floyd had just been killed and the country was starting to look at itself and ask why are Black and Brown bodies treated this way?”

Success has ensued with two collaborative, celebrated shorts — “Release” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get Who?” — both directed by Gonzalez. 

While working with your partner can sometimes be a lot, it also has its advantages, says Gonzalez. He appreciates the pair ultimately always have one another’s back. Also, they’re different in complementary ways. “Cedric is more type A, really gets things done,” says Gonzalez “He keeps me tethered to the ground.” 

For the moment, the affianced actors have put nuptials on the back burner, preferring to invest their time and money in the company. Gonzalez says, “We don’t have kids or a mortgage, the company is our child; it’s what drives us.” 

And what about “Hamilton”? “Another year, maybe longer? Whatever happens, I’m taking it one day at a time and feeling a lot of gratitude,” he says. 

Pierre Jean Gonzalez as Hamilton. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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Theater

A diverse fall theater season underway in D.C.

Exploring the American workplace, Moms Mabley, abortion access, and more

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Bobby Smith in ‘No Place to Go’ at Signature Theatre. (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

At Signature Theatre in Arlington, the fall season has already kicked off with Ethan Lipton’s “No Place to Go” (through Oct. 16), a commentary on the sad state of working in America starring Bobby Smith backed by a cool trio of musicians. In a stunning performance, Smith plays George, a writer/musician juggling artistic pursuits and a day job as an information refiner. When the unfeeling company decides to streamline, George must decide whether to remain in the city that never sleeps or follow his “permanent part-time job” to Mars.

Smartly staged by Signature’s artistic director Matthew Gardiner, the show runs a brisk, effective, and entertaining 90 minutes. With the feel of a nightclub act squeezed into an office, George, the band’s front man, stands mostly center stage, bookended by a standard issue desk and a large copy machine. “No Place to Go” proves a wonderful vehicle for Smith, allowing the out actor to demonstrate his sensational singing range, comedic gifts, and depth as an actor. Sigtheatre.org

GALA Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights presents “Revoltosa”/ “The Troublemaker” (through Oct. 2) helmed by out director José Luis Arellano. Alternating between song and Spanish spoken word (with English subtitles), this popular zarzuela is at its heart “a story about an outspoken woman who upturns traditions with her neighbors and delights in exposing social hypocrisies.” Galatheatre.org

At Anacostia Arts Center, award-winning performer Charisma Wooten is reprising her celebrated comedy cabaret, “A Night with Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley” (Sept. 23 – Oct. 9), presented by Essential Theatre. For decades Mabley killed it playing man-hungry Moms, shuffling around stages in a housecoat and slippers. Offstage, often outfitted in silk shirts and trousers with a showgirl on her arm, the famed groundbreaking Black comedian was out to friends and colleagues. Theessentialtheatre.org

North Bethesda’s Strathmore Music Center boasts a fall lineup including, among many offerings, music collective Sweet Honey in the Rock (Sept. 16), famed Bossa Nova phenom Sergio Mendes (September 29), and “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” (Nov. 20-22). Strathmore.org

At Ford’s Theatre, esteemed out director Michael Wilson is staging Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful” (Sept. 23 – Oct. 16), an American classic about going home. The much-anticipated (by me for sure) production features D.C. great Nancy Robinette as Carrie Watts, an elderly woman determined to return to her rural hometown. The cast also includes Joe Mallon as Carrie’s overly protective son Ludie, and Kimberly Gilbert as his selfish wife Jessie Mae. Fordstheatre.org

Shakespeare Theatre Company opens its season with Tony-winning Mary Zimmerman’s “The Notebooks of Leonarda da Vinci” (Sept. 29 – Oct. 23). Composed entirely of words from da Vinci’s notebooks, the piece brings his glorious genius to vivid life. Shakespearetheatre.org

Spooky Action Theatre’s autumn offering is gay playwright Jordan Harrison’s “Maple and Vine” (Sept. 29 – Oct. 23) a play about a disillusioned urban couple who in pursuit of happiness forsake contemporary trappings for a more 1950s lifestyle. Spookyaction.org

Mosaic Theater Company opens its fall season with playwright Ifa Bayeza’s “The Till Trilogy” (Oct. 4 – Nov. 20). The three plays (“The Ballad of Emmett Till,” “Benevolence,” and the world premiere “That Summer in Sumner”) reflect on the life, death, and legacy of young Emmett Till, whose senseless murder in 1955 Jim Crow South remains a pivotal moment in American history. The long-awaited production directed by Talvin Wilks, features ten actors performing in rotating repertory. Included in the cast are talented out actors Vaughn Ryan Midder and Jaysen Wright.

Arena Stage opens the fall season with “Holiday” (Oct. 7 – Nov. 6), a sparkling romantic comedy penned by Philip Barry, followed by retiring artistic director Molly Smith’s directorial adieu “My Body No Choice” (Oct. 20 through Nov. 6), some of America’s leading female playwrights share what choice means to them, through the telling of fiction and non-fiction stories rooted in personal experience. Arenastage.org

The DMV fall season is more than peppered with plays by Lynn Nottage, the African-American Pulitzer Prize winner whose work frequently highlights the struggles of working class and marginalized people. Below are two.

At 1st Stage in Tysons, out director Jose Carrasquillo is staging Nottage’s “Mlima’s Tale” (through Oct. 2), a story about an elderly poached elephant whose magnificent ivory tusks embark on a journey across the world, introducing characters connected to the ivory trade. 1ststage.org

Theatre J has tapped talented Paige Hernandez to direct Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” (Oct. 19 – Nov. 13). Set on New York’s Lower East Side circa 1905, it’s the story of Esther, an African-American seamstress, who while sewing lingerie yearns for romance, particularly with one Orthodox Jewish fabric merchant. Theaterj.org

With “Judy” (October 22), the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington celebrates the music of the incomparable legend Judy Garland. Fourteen soloists plucked from the Chorus will share stories and sing her tunes, including favorites like “Over the Rainbow,” “The Trolley Song,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “The Man That Got Away,” and “Happy Days are Here Again.” Gmcw.org

At Olney Theatre, Clare Barron’s off-Broadway hit “Dance Nation” (Sept. 28 – Oct. 30) follows a tween-age dance team from Liverpool, Ohio, as they compete for the top prize at the Boogie Down Grand Prix. Actors of varied ages — including excellent out actor MaryBeth Wise — portray the girls (and one boy) as adolescents and their future adult selves. Not for kids.

And for theatergoers who missed it last season, Olney Theatre is remounting its terrific production of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” (Nov. 9 through Jan. 1, 2023). And fortunately for audiences, out actor Jade Jones, a self-described queer, plus-sized Black woman, is reprising her star turn as Belle. Olneytheatre.org

Finally, Theatre Washington has announced the return of Theatre Week, a three-week celebration of the launch of the 2022-2023 theater season in D.C. Theatre Week will be held Sept. 22-Oct. 9, and will offer shows at discounted prices, a Kickoff Fest and Concert on the Southwest waterfront, and other community events. 

The 2022 Theatre Week Kickoff Fest and Concert will take place on Saturday, Sept. 24 on the Waterfront in Southwest. The Fest from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. at Arena Stage (1101 Sixth St. SW), will feature performances, workshops, conversations, free locally made food & drinks, giveaways, and more. The Kickoff Concert will follow on the floating stage (Transit Pier) on the Wharf, and will feature performances from D.C.-area theater luminaries. Both events are free with registration through Goldstar, the official ticketing partner of Theatre Week.

Throughout Theatre Week, more than 20 area productions will offer discounted tickets at $22, $33, $44 through Goldstar. More information on Theatre Week shows, events, and registration is available at theatreweek.org.

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Theater

‘Ain’t No Mo’’ offers tough conversations about racism, homophobia

‘A laugh followed by a gut punch is a good way in’

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Jon Hudson Odom as Peaches in ‘Ain't No Mo.’ (Photo courtesy Brave Lux Photography)

‘Ain’t No Mo’’
Sept. 11-Oct. 10
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D St., NW
$30 – $67
Woollymammoth.net  

Throughout his career, Jon Hudson Odom has played many queer parts, including Belize, the wise nurse in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America”; the title character in Jordan Tannahill’s “Botticelli in the Fire”; and recurring same-sex love interests on two HBO series, “Somebody Somewhere” and “Lovecraft Country.”

And now, the trend continues. Odom is playing a drag queen named Peaches in the regional premiere of Jordan E. Cooper’s comedy “Ain’t No Mo’” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Comprised of sketches, it tracks the hope-filled Obama administration through the Trump years when African Americans no longer necessarily feel welcome. In response, all of America’s Black population is offered free tickets on a one-way flight to Africa. Peaches is the flight attendant. 

As an acting student at North Carolina School of the Arts, Odom didn’t foresee a future speckled with queer roles. “The idea of remaining in the closet to move ahead in this profession was an idea that was very much present,” says the handsome 30-something actor. 

“So, to have come this far where I can stand on stage proudly as a queer Black man is quite the revolutionary thing for the community. I’d bring some part to do in class but queer roles weren’t offered. It was the ‘Street Car Named Desire’ mold – either you’re a Stanley or a Mitch. Now being a Blanche is a choice for me too.”

A staple of Washington theater for more than a decade before returning to his native Chicago about four years ago, he’s pleased to be back in town but doesn’t regret having left. In Chicago, Odom is closer to family and working from there, he’s found many opportunities on stage (including the prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre Company) and television. 

For Odom, the most gratifying part about working in D.C. again is being in a room with incredibly talented Black artists at Woolly Mammoth: “Jordan is one of our best playwrights and ‘Ain’t No Mo’’ is a brilliant vehicle to showcase some great talent. I’m really excited to see what we can bring to his work.”

WASHINGTON BLADE: Tell us about Peaches

JON HUDSON ODOM: She’s a lot of fun, but she’s also fierce and not to be fucked with. It’s been a challenge to create a drag queen from the inside out. You don’t meet a lot of drag queens who’ve done text work. It usually begins externally. But yeah, the corset and heels alone change the way you move and breathe. 

BLADE: Jordan Cooper both wrote and created the part of Peaches on stage. Intimidating? 

ODOM: I’m the second actor to play Peaches. So yeah, it’s some big heels to fill. To make Peaches my own is a wonderful challenge.

Before Peaches, Jordan [Cooper] hadn’t written a queer character. In a recent conversation, he told me that Peaches was inspired by Eunice Evers the nurse in David Feldshuh’s play “Miss Evers’ Boys’” about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. She’s the gatekeeper. 

For most of his life Jordan felt more comfortable in Black rather than queer spaces. With “Ain’t No Mo” he wanted to bring the two together. It’s a hot button issue in the Black community because so much of the culture is rooted in the Baptist church. I remember growing up and that was the sin to not be spoken of.

BLADE: Is this your first time doing drag on stage?

ODOM: When I played Belize, the nurse in “Angels in America” at Round House Theatre, we did a scene with Belize in drag. His drag is referred to in the script but never shown, so I really went to bat for it.  The way we did the scene gave a glimpse into the otherwise unseen magical world he inhabits when not nursing. 

BLADE: Is Woolly still an artistic home for you?

ODOM: Yes. It’s a hallowed place for me, and Woolly’s audiences are incredible. After doing regional theater all over the country I appreciate how Woolly has cultivated an audience diverse in race and age. I’m really looking forward to being around that community. 

The run includes a blackout night, which means an entirely Black audience for one of the shows, which I think will be really incredible. I feel sad for those who will miss it. 

BLADE: Is “Ain’t No Mo’” more than a comedy?

ODOM: It’s both a celebration and indictment. And a call to arms. When you’re having tough conversations about racism, colorism, and homophobia, a laugh followed by a gut punch is a good way in. 

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