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A Big Idea: Compleat Female Stage Beauty

Benjamin Ismail as Ned Kynaston and Kristine David as Margaret Hughes.

It is the year 1661 in England, and the lovely Desdemona lies sleeping in her bed, long golden locks draping over white linen. She awakens slowly to the sound of her lover. “Othello, is that you?” she asks sleepily. Othello, a masculine Moor, approaches her, intent to kill in his heart. He grabs a beaded pillow, and in a few moments, suffocates the damsel to death.

Gasps of terror turn to laughter as Desdemona jumps up from her deathbed, takes off a wig of flowing curls, and reveals the man behind Shakespeare’s lead lady – Ned Kynaston, the theatre’s greatest male portrayer of female roles in London.

“Oh, but the play is not over!” he says. The audience cheering, he falls elegantly onto the bed. Later, backstage, Kynaston and his company of actors try desperately to deal with the startling news that women are now allowed on the stage, a reality that threatens Kynaston’s career and identity.

However, the audience is actually witnessing a play within a play, “Compleat Female Stage Beauty,” and Ned Kynaston is performed by actor Benjamin Ismail.

“Compleat Female Stage Beauty,” written by Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by Brian Harrower, will run until Feb. 5 at the intimate Big Idea Theatre in Sacramento.  The play is a timeless, comical and tragic story about the impact of gender in society and how to find our true selves; we must dare to remove our “masks.” The play stars company members Ismail as Kynaston and Kristine David as his rival, the first female stage actress: Margaret Hughes.

Ismail first came across the script for this play in 2004 as a student at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas.

"When I found it, I thought, ‘Oh my god! I have to do this someday!’ ” he said.

As a theater major with an emphasis in directing, Ismail proposed the play to his school, but the department declined because of the expense of the costumes.

Ten years later, Ismail finally gets to play what he considers to be the role of a lifetime.

“The script itself is just brilliant. The journey and the arc that Hatcher has written into it is a dream role.” he said. “I not only get to play Kynaston…but I get to play two Shakespeare roles that I would never get to play in real life because I’m not black, and I’m not a woman, so I get to play Othello and Desdemona.”

As a company member at Big Idea Theatre, Ismail had the chance to pitch three shows for the upcoming season.

“It was the first thing on the table,” he said.

But even then, it took a lot of campaigning to win the support of the theater.

“It’s a monster of a show. There are so many scene changes, so many costume changes and there’s so much going on, and we have a really small theatre here,” said Harrower, the director. “But it was such a good script, and I thought it was a really important story to tell.”

Five weeks and several lighting tricks later, the company managed to create a historic proscenium space, purchase 30 Restoration-era costumes on a budget of $500, and premiere the play to a receptive audience.

“That was kind of one of the challenges of making this piece, making sure that all of those elements were treated well and were given their full birth,” Harrower said. “It’s a very complete play. The first 45 minutes are almost completely a comedy. Then the next hour is a really serious drama and at the end it still manages to come out very redemptive.”

After finally playing the character that’s been in his pocket for more than six years, Ismail said that putting on the show has been quite an emotional journey.

“It’s quite a process for me,” he said. “I start getting ready for the show at 4:30 every day to start at 8, because I have to get everything pretty to be a woman or whatever…During rehearsals I’d get so into it that when the scene would be over, I just couldn’t shake it…I’m still discovering new things in the show. It has been hard to leave (Kynaston) at the theater, but I relish that."

Ismail added that it's not just his character that's layered with emotions, but the rest of the cast as well. 

"All of the characters have so much going on underneath the surface," he siad. "This show is very much about putting on a show whether or not you’re on stage.”

“Without what we do, who are we?” is a common question being asked throughout the play. Ismail said it’s a question he’s asked himself daily.

“Coming out in the south was a great experience for me,” he said sarcastically. “And I had to learn that lesson very quickly, that we’re not always what we do because, you know, I don’t have to be a stereotype. Kynaston doesn’t have to be a stereotype. We’re just people. No matter where we come from, we’re all people, and we’ve got that in common. ‘Why do we do the things that we do?’ That’s what every character is asking in this show.”

Performances of “Compleat Female Stage Beauty” are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. (Jan. 13, 14, 15, 20, 21, 22, 28, 29, Feb. 4, 5) and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. (Jan. 16, 23, 30).

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