The prima donna in
question is Edward Kynaston (Israel Demidov), the toast of London, and the last
in a long line of men who played women on the stage. The last, because Charles
II (1660-85) lifted the prohibition against women on the stage. Actresses were
This, in essence, is the story and the backbone of Prima
Donna. What do you do when your livelihood is wrenched from you? When you are a
man playing a woman, who are you when the dress and the wig come off for ever?
Gender identity is only part of it. Obsolescence is built into all that we do.
Who now remembers the typewriter? If Kynaston can’t adapt, he’s gone, and how
Kynaston finds a self and a voice is the tenuous thread that runs through
Alexander Morpov’s eclectic, sprawling and vigorous production that cheerfully
mixes the 21st and 17th centuries.
Why? Because Prima Donna is also as
much about theater itself as it is about anything, and theater is
Michael Karamenko’s vivid costumes add to the deliberate
There’s no dramatic plot here. There’s a clash of
values, of conventions, of possibilities.
Hatcher’s play has Kynaston’s
dresser, Maria (Dana Mynert) assume the alter ego of Margaret Hughes, the first
professional actress of the English stage.
It’s not until Kynaston
coaches Hughes in the playing of Desdemona, his great role – the death scene
from Othello punctuates the play – that who he is, he realizes, is what he does,
and he does it well.
Nikola Toromanov’s seemingly makeshift set gives us
London venues represented by a bare platform with various curtains, and below it
the cluttered backstage of Thomas Betterton’s Cockpit-in-Court theater. Miki
Leon plays actor/manager Betterton with an eager hunger that nicely offsets the
restrained menace of his Sir Charles Hedley, Kynaston’s nemesis, and the double
casting is deliberate.
The characters of Prima Donna are a parade of
17thcentury London’s who’s who, from King Charles II, portrayed by Alon Friedman
as a petulant brat, to primly-suited diarist Samuel Pepys, played beautifully
tongue-in-cheek by Gilad Kalter, to Charles’ firebrand mistress Nell Gwynn (Ruth
Rasiuk) who deliciously does a Monroe take-off in “I Wanna Be Loved by
The always magnetic Demidov starts out his Ned Kynaston as a glossy
personal and sexual cipher, too dependent on the adulation he receives. Then,
slowly, almost meekly, he lets us into the painful process of Ned’s emergence as
a human being, for which his vicious beating by Sedley’s thugs may be seen as a
metaphor. It’s amazing, subtle work.
Mynert’s Hughes is less
She charms but her portrayal lacks steel, and as Hughes she
This Prima Donna brawls, pushes, makes us laugh – a lot –
demands attention and sticks in the mind.