Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher likes historical subjects. His play about the Titanic, "Scotland Road," ran at Source Theatre Company a few years ago, and his nifty adaptation of Henry James's "Turn of the Screw" recently won fine reviews at Round House Theatre. "Compleat Female Stage Beauty," his newest work, takes place in 1660s London, when Charles II reopened the theaters following the 18-year Puritan drought. It premiered Friday at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

"Compleat Female Stage Beauty" refers to a real 17th-century actor, Edward Kynaston, who was advertised thus as the foremost player of female roles. Until, that is, the liberal king lifted the ban that had long kept women off the stage and also barred male actors from taking female roles. It was "a really crazy 18th-century affirmative action," observed Hatcher by phone from his Minneapolis home.

The play imagines how Kynaston might have handled the blow to his career. "When Kynaston . . . was impersonating females onstage and it was accepted, then he wasn't a freak," Hatcher said. "The moment the world changed, then he was a target."

Hatcher learned from research that Kynaston often played Desdemona and that he was widely assumed to have been the lover of the Duke of Buckingham, though he later married and resumed his career in male roles. "I did poke around a good deal, but mercifully there's not much written about the guy," said Hatcher. So he fictionalized relationships between Kynaston and other actors, King Charles, Nell Gwynn (the king's mistress) and famed diarist Samuel Pepys, who pops up throughout.

"When you do a play that's set in a fictional past, you are allowed to do certain things that you can't do in a contemporary play," Hatcher said. So he includes a graphically written sex scene or two and considerable lewd language. He argues that's a stage tradition: "I find a lot of actors are the foulest mouth[ed] people I've ever known. . . . I think they do really run toward the vulgar, the braggadocio, the bravado."

Elaborating, Hatcher added, "Somebody talks about the poetic language and the way theater can change people's souls and perceptions, and although we believe that, we become embarrassed . . . so we attempt to deflate it so we don't set ourselves up on so high a pedestal."

Pondering Portia

In her crisp, unmannered performance as Portia in "The Merchant of Venice" at the Shakespeare Theatre, Enid Graham lets the audience see her character's privileged background and casual sense of superiority and, yes, racism and antisemitism.

"Michael's [Kahn] idea was to take everything that's difficult in the play and not just solve it," Graham recalled in a recent phone conversation.

"The Merchant of Venice" is widely considered one of Shakespeare's "problem" plays--an awkward blend of comedy and melodrama, populated by characters whose motivations aren't much clarified by the text.

In a "well-made play," said Graham, "you wouldn't have the lead female character display as many unresolved negative qualities." But she has an explanation for Portia's peccadilloes: "She has no life experience; that's the way I can forgive her. She's protected by all this money and privilege. How's she supposed to know what the world is like?"

Raised in Texas, Graham, 29, was a student of Kahn's at Juilliard and now lives in New York. Last season she played Jane Alexander's daughter in "Honour" on Broadway and starred in Jeffrey Hatcher's "The Turn of the Screw" off-Broadway. So she was ready for a bit of the Bard.

"In coming back here to do Shakespeare, I was reminded it doesn't hurt to do it again," she said. "It takes every muscle that you have."

Source's 1999-2000 Lineup

Source Theatre's 1999-2000 season will begin with David Mamet's "Edmond" (Sept. 11-Oct. 3), the play canceled last spring due to the theater's unfinished renovation. It is, said Artistic Director Joe Banno, one of Mamet's "grittiest and most uncompromising" works in its portrayal of a white middle-class man exploring the inner city, laying bare feelings of racism and misogyny.

"Inns and Outs" (Dec. 4-Jan. 2), by Washington-based Caleen Sinette Jennings, consists of six short plays about people passing through the same hotel room. Source Managing Director Lisa Rose Middleton will direct. She has staged other works by Jennings, who teaches drama at American University. The play, said Middleton, is about "how black folks deal with each other. . . . With Caleen's work, you get to see us in all of our colors."

"The Dying Gaul" (Feb. 5-March 5) by Craig Lucas involves a gay screenwriter compromised by a sex triangle including himself, a producer and the producer's wife, all on the Internet.

And last--the result of Middleton's "double-dog dare" to Banno--an all-male production of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" (May 20-June 18). "Let's just play the subtext right up front," said Banno, who'll direct. It won't be in drag, oh no. Gwendolyn and Cecily will be Wendell and Cecil. Lady Bracknell will be in trousers; they'll just call him Lady Bracknell.

Follow Spots

* Studio Theatre will hold a garage sale on Saturday from 10 a.m. till 4 p.m., featuring sets and props from last season. You could turn that neat "Emmerac" computer from "The Desk Set" into a nice wet bar, for instance, or nab some Christmas tree ornaments from "The Last Night of Ballyhoo." Call 202-232-7267.

* The extension of its Chicago run has delayed the opening of the "Cabaret" tour at the Warner. The show, which stars Teri Hatcher, was to open July 28, but will now open Aug. 11. If you bought tickets for dates before Aug. 11 by phone through Ticketmaster, call 301-808-6900 or 703-573-SEAT. If you bought them at a Ticketmaster outlet or the Warner box office, go back there. In all cases use the phrase " 'Cabaret' priority reseating."

* A passel of Washington-based stage actors will appear in the made-for-cable movie "The Hunley," about the Civil War-era submarine, starring Donald Sutherland and Armand Assante. Appearing in the TNT film are Marty Lodge, Nancy Robinette, Mitchell Hebert, Jon Tindle and Paul Morella. Lodge told Backstage the film will be shown tomorrow at 8 p.m., Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.

* Diners at the Kennedy Center's Roof Terrace Restaurant have been admiring Chef Shannon Shaffer's dark chocolate Titanic dessert in honor of the musical now docked at Foggy Bottom. A few have noted that, technically, it's the wrong half of the ship skewed at a famously sinking angle, sporting white chocolate smokestacks, headed into a sea of caramel sauce and with a lemon sherbet iceberg looming next to it. Based on the real Titanic's last supper, but pared down from that 11-course meal, the special fixed-price menu offers spring pea soup or asparagus salad, followed by chicken Lyonnaise or tournedos of beef.

CAPTION: No life experience: Enid Graham finds a key to Portia's casual sense of superiority in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice."

CAPTION: Melinda Wade, Susan Knight and Cherene Snow in "Compleat Female Stage Beauty," which imagines the life of the 17th-century English player of female roles Edward Kynaston.