Imagine a governor who admits to hating funerals because they darken his wardrobe. Now imagine a governor who will not cancel a party for the Queen of England in a time of political unrest because he just sold South Jersey to pay for his dress. Imagine a governor who refuses to run from an angry mob arguing, “I’m not dressed for walking!” This man is Edward Hyde, also known as Lord Cornbury, the cross-dressing governor of New York and New Jersey who reigned in political office between 1702 and 1707. Hailing from England, Lord Cornbury (David Greenspan) is not the ideal choice for a political office. After accumulating a staggering debt, his advisor, Spinoza Dacosta, (Ken Kliban) begs him to at least consider paying back some of his creditors. Africa, (Ashley Bryant) his beautiful and sassy servant, scolds him for scaring a Dutch pastor’s son (Christian Pedersen) sent to spy on his behavior. He shocks the pious boy by confronting him in a long blue gown and wig of brown curls. “What?” he asks as the boy staggers backwards. “You don’t like blue?”
In his time, Lord Cornbury may not have been a popular politician, but in William M. Hoffman and Anthony Holland’s historical comedy, Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor, his charisma and conviction to his beliefs – wayward as they are – paint him in a more loveable light.
Greenspan has a playful nature and a charming magnetism. He appears to be having fun with his eccentric character, much to the credit of Holland and Hoffman’s witty dialogue, costume designer, Jeffrey Wallach’s exaggerated gowns and set designer, Mark Beard’s unique scenery all of which give him great material to have fun with.
Beard has created some amazing things with cardboard. His set pieces are painted with intricate details and cleverly paired with tangible objects to enhance their realistic appearance. For example, a barmaid picks a real towel off a cardboard bar and pulls a real glass out of a cardboard cabinet. But the finest set piece is the elaborate cardboard boat docked offstage that is later used for one of the best visual gags in the play.
Watching Greenspan glide across the stage draped in outrageous fashion designs also delivers a series of hilarious visuals. Wallach has dressed the flamboyant governor in huge puffy gowns with waistlines supported by baskets tied to each of his hips. His necklines glitter with an overabundance of tiny diamonds, and at one point, Greenspan wears a wig made entirely of flowers.
But despite these eye-popping costumes, the play examines more than just a former governor’s cross-dressing legacy. Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor spotlights a time in New York history that is very pivotal to the city’s evolution, a time when the English ruled much of the land and the Dutch lamented their small piece of the pie.
In a playbill article Hoffman points out that many people do not realize how “Dutch the city of New York was, and still is in some ways,” citing the names of Delancy Street, Van Cortland Park and Staten Island (once Staaten Eylandt) as a few examples.
And for all of Lord Cornbury’s cross-dressing antics he did embrace diversity, and encouraged the growth of a city where many nationalities could peacefully intertwine and thrive. The facts and hearsay surrounding his tumultuous reign as governor may have cast a shadow on the validity of his vision, but there is no ignoring that the New York we inhabit today still retains bits and pieces of the civilization he started centuries ago.