When Men Were Women

“Talk you of killing?” asks Shakespeare’s doomed Desdemona of her murderous Moor, Othello.

“Ay, I do!” her husband replies, as he smothers the life out of her.

The death scene of Shakespeare’s edge-of-your-seat thriller, Othello, is at the center of Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty, in Rogue Machine Theatre’s inaugural production, onstage now through June 15 at Theatre Theater, 5041 West Pico Blvd.

Set in Restoration England, the play chronicles the demise of Edward Kynaston, the last and perhaps greatest male actor of Shakespeare’s women’s roles. Prior to the reign of Charles II, Shakespeare’s queens and courtesans — indeed, all women’s parts — were the exclusive property of an illustrious coterie of “boy players” trained from early childhood in the art of female impersonation. With the proscription against women on the stage lifted, the drag queens suddenly found themselves unemployed.

The court of King Charles II was a stark contrast to the 20 years of Puritan rule by the notorious Cromwell. Following the return of the monarchy from exile, England’s royal palace became a de facto international salon, attracting and supporting a kaleidoscopic array of working artists and scholars including Sir Isaac Newton, architect Christopher Wren, composer Henry Purcell, diarist Samuel Pepys, and actress-comedienne Nell Gwynn, the King’s own mistress.

Under founder and artistic director John Perrin Flynn, Rogue Machine Theatre’s sumptuous mounting of Hatcher’s bawdy comedy features a large ensemble cast, led by Michael Traynor as Edward Kynaston. “The part is so challenging, I got cold feet and left the theater before auditioning,” Traynor tells FineArtsLA. “But the director caught me when I came back to get my jacket.”

“Michael wasn’t the Kynaston I had originally imagined,” says Flynn. “But he blew me away during his reading. I had wanted a comedian, of course. That, he was, and so much more.”

A former dancer, Traynor worked “from the outside in,” he says, experimenting with postures and gestures to find his character’s grace and femininity. His tour-de-force Kynaston is rarely off stage, running the gamut from hilarious to heart-breaking.

The set and costumes by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz are a show in themselves, combining elements of Restoration and modern couture. A live musical ensemble – led by Music Director and FineArtsLA.com managing editor Penny Orloff -underscores the action with authentic Dowland and Purcell.

Originally scheduled to run through June 1, the production has been extended for two weeks. Information and tickets are available online at http://www.roguemachinetheatre.com/.

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