Concert review

Prima Donna (The Compleat Female Stage Beauty) By Jeffrey Hatcher Translation by Roi Hen Directed by Alexander Morpov Gesher Theater, July 8.

Prima Donna 370 (photo credit: Gadi Dagon)
Prima Donna 370
(photo credit: Gadi Dagon)
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 now legal.
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 atemporal.
Michael Karamenko’s vivid costumes add to the deliberate temporal confusion.
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 You.”
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 persuasive.
She charms but her portrayal lacks steel, and as Hughes she needs it.
This Prima Donna brawls, pushes, makes us laugh – a lot – demands attention and sticks in the mind.