Stage Right

Playhouse Creatures finds Orange Girls in rare form.

Talk about turning the world upside down. Imagine the confusion that ensued in Restoration London when King Charles II decreed that at long last women would be allowed to enact female roles on the stage. In the comedy-drama Playhouse Creatures by April De Angelis, we see those first actresses fighting for respect and equal pay; we see them as the objects of sexual discrimination. And of course we're led to conclude that little has changed over the past four centuries.

The playhouse in which the action occurs (both onstage and in the backstage changing room) originally was a bear pit. Now it is has gone down in the world, for a theater in 1670s England was deemed a den of defilement. We soon realize that men don't patronize this theater for the novelty of seeing women in the flesh; they come for the flesh alone. "I'm an actress, not a tart," Nell Gwyn defiantly proclaims, even as we can't help thinking that the lady — soon to be the king's mistress — doth protest too much.

The underlying conceit of Playhouse Creatures is that we only meet women. But because the unseen men are still holding the purse strings — are still, in effect, controlling everything that happens to these five actresses — most of the turning-point events already have occurred, or are about to ensue, offstage. Instead of sustained action, we must settle for an accumulation of incidents. Yet as staged by the Orange Girls in a production that has been directed with loving attention to detail by Deanna Jent, these isolated moments create a mosaic of refreshing theatricality.

Talent, sensitively steered, always will out. And if there's one thing on display here, it is talent. It is a pleasure to see such passion and conviction so persuasively rendered. As the haughty Mrs. Marshall, Julie Layton draws the most thinly written of the five roles. Even so, we can share her trauma and feel her shame when she is dumped on — and I don't mean that figuratively — by a vindictive earl. Michelle Hand portrays the wife of the troupe's actor-manager. It might be that Hand is too young for the part, but she succeeds in convincing us that she's not. Brooke Edwards is hauntingly otherworldly as the rosy-cheeked, doll-like Mrs. Farley, whose fall from grace reminds us of the high stakes involved in trying to create a life in the theater.

If Playhouse Creatures depicts the first actresses, then Nancy Lewis' toothless old caretaker-nanny must have been the first female scene-stealer. Not that Lewis sets out to steal scenes; she just can't help but be a wonder on the stage. A literal wonder, of the sort that makes a viewer marvel: How did she create such a ridiculously endearing character? In a story whose theme is change, Lewis is a constant joy.

Then there is the inelegant Nell Gwyn, who suffers repeated humiliations and indignities. But where others would crumble, she in fact thrives. Magan Wiles romps through an amazingly meticulous performance composed of so many shadings and surprises that it would be cruel to prospective viewers to enumerate them here. Suffice to say that Wiles is the real thing, a true playhouse creature, utterly at home on the stage. After having watched Wiles act for several years now, it is evident that she is that rare actress whose gifts exceed her understanding. Wiles' youth, intuition and exuberance personify acting in its purest form, and she has never given a more pure performance than here.

As history's most ambitious orange girl, Nell Gwyn is this company's namesake. Well, why not? It is a tart, brash company indeed that can make something so magical out of such potentially hazardous material. Who else in town would stage this flawed play? And who would stage it so well? Playhouse Creatures is the most satisfying Orange Girls production since their knockout opener, Going to See the Elephant, three years ago.