Theater Review: THE LITTLE FELLOW (OR THE QUEEN OF TARTS TELLS ALL) (World Premiere at Cygnet Theatre in San Diego)

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by Dan Zeff on October 30, 2023

in Theater-Regional,Theater-San Diego


The Little Fellow (or The Queen of Tarts Tells All) may seem like a frivolous title for a serious play, but dramatist Kate Hamill has plenty of weighty themes in her script, now getting its world premiere at Cygnet Theatre. And with Hamill at the writing helm, the audience can anticipate a substantial measure of feminism for the audience to chew on.

The play is a historical social drama set in the Regency period in England (the late 1700s and early 1800s). The real-life heroine is Harriette Wilson (1786-1845), a prostitute since the age of 13 who earned her “Little Fellow” nickname because she dressed like a child. And because she was the best-known courtesan in England for years, she was labeled “The Queen of Tarts.” Harriette was an outspoken, foul-mouthed lady who often dressed in men’s clothes, and her clients were among the leading members of the British male aristocracy of her time.

The play’s action takes place in 1830, when Wilson recognizes she is nearing the end of her quality years as a courtesan and feels she has earned a pension from her high-born clients for the years of expert service she has rendered. But she lived in a rigorously misogynistic world in which the men call the financial and sexual shots, and women were discarded at the client’s pleasure, fobbed off with an annual pittance of an annuity if they were lucky.

Harriette is not one to be discarded lightly, but she has no labor union to take her part, and the high-born men she has served feel no obligation to meet what she feels are her future fiscal needs. So she became proactive, and in 1825 she published her memoirs, which included the names of her clients unless she received the compensation she had earned during her working years. In other words, pay blackmail, or else. Harriette’s memoirs become a sensation, and wealthy former clients scramble to pay her off before they lose their reputations. And those who do not pay face life-ruining social and marital consequences.

Hamill condenses the broad outlines of Harriette’s life in a single 95-minute act. There are only four actors in the cast, with Keiko Green starring in an incandescent performance as Harriette. She is complemented with superior supporting performances by MJ Sieber (Green’s real-life husband), Sofia Jean Gomez, and Rachael VanWormer.

The supporting threesome assumes multiple roles, but only Green is on stage every moment of the production, rendering a character who is sly, bitter, droll, self-serving, desperate, manipulating, and above all, iron-willed. I would love to see Green portray Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing or Lady Macbeth. Green’s long scene with Sieber’s Duke of Wellington is the high-tension core of the play, a riveting verbal back-and-forth debate that illuminates the sexual battlefield of the time, dominated by men.

Much of the action is concentrated in a single room, presumably Harriette’s drawing room, furnished with period furniture and stacks of books, enclosed by a high ceiling and curtains. The physical production in its entirety deserves huzzahs for Yi-Chien Lee (scenic designer), Anne E. McMills (lighting designer), Steven Leffue (sound designer), Shirley Pierson (Regency costume designs), Peter Herman (wigs and make-up design), and Alyssa Kane (properties designer).

Rob Lutfy‘s directing keeps the action shifting smoothly from humor to emotional boil to occasional physical attack. There is no nudity in the staging though there is considerable profanity and abundant verbal sexual references. But all the show’s R-rated ingredients legitimately enrich the action and characterizations. And towering over all this excellence is Keiko Green’s domination as the complex Harriette, fighting for what she sees as a woman her rights in a man’s world.

photos by Karli Cadel Photography

The Little Fellow (Or The Queen of Tarts Tells All)
Cygnet Theatre Company
Old Town Theater, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Wed thru Sat at 7; Sat & Sun at 2
ends on November 19, 2023
for tickets (starting at $27), call 619.337.1525 or visit Cygnet


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