In “Compleat Female Stage Beauty,” Melissa Peters is acting as a man who performs as a woman on stage. If this premise kindles memories of “Victor/Victoria,” the 1982 musical film starring Julie Andrews about a struggling singer who finds work as a male impersonator, then you’d have a semblance of what’s going on in the Theatre SC production.
But there are noticeable differences.
“Compleat Female Stage Beauty” is set in 17th century England during The Restoration, a time when few female actors were permitted on stage. Thus men had to assume female roles. The character Peters portrays, Edward Kynaston, enjoys the spoils of celebrity and a high level of repute because of the female roles he has performed on the stage. But when King Charles II declares that women can perform, Kynaston almost immediately relinquishes his prestige. He is left to wrestle with his future as an actor — and his place as a man in society.
“In the course of his life, the tide shifted,” Peters said.
The play, which is intended for mature audiences, opens Friday and runs through Nov. 17 at Longstreet Theatre. While Jeffrey Hatcher’s drama includes a historical character, the events in the play are fictionalized. We first meet Kynaston as Desdemona in “Othello.” It’s one of the few times Peters will be performing as a woman in the play. What the audience will see a majority of the time is her as Kynaston.
“It’s been quite a journey,“ said Peters, a first-year MFA student in acting.
She worked with Erica Tobolski, the voice and speech trainer at USC, and Gary Logan, the production’s director, on getting the right man, so to speak. Logan is the director of the Academy for Classical Acting at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington.
“We’ve been working on adjustments in physical and vocal work that make me appear more masculine,” Peters said.
Once she had the role, Peters began to watch men more carefully. Not in a creepy way, she was mindful to say. Her reconnaissance routine included buying coffee at the Russell House Starbucks and then lounging with a book in a courtyard.
“The shape of the pelvis changes a lot about how we move,” Peters said. “I just learned by observation. I was really a benign observer of movement.”
When did Peters become comfortable playing the role of a man?
“I think one of the main shifts that I had was realizing that my fellow castmates were accepting me as a man on stage,” she said. “Once I felt it was happening, I allowed it to deepen.”
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.