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Into the Breeches!
by George Brant
Directed by Nancy Bell
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
November 1, 2018

Kari Ely, Katy Keating, Jacqueline Thompson, Mary McNulty, Michelle Hand
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is branching out. Known for years for its free mainstage productions in Forest Park as well as a few other projects like Shake 38 and Shakespeare in the Streets, the Festival is now adding another program to their schedule. The “In the Works” festival highlights more modern works based on Shakespeare by contemporary playwrights, including a headline show at the Grandel Theatre. This year’s headliner is called Into the Breeches! and it’s delightful. Featuring a first-rate cast of mostly local St. Louis performers, the show looks back at a pivotal time in American history, as well as celebrating Shakespeare, women in the arts, inclusion, and most of all, a real sense of love for the theatre.

The story takes place in 1942, in the midst of the Second World War. With so many men overseas fighting in the war, women have been enlisted to hold down the fort at home. At the Oberon Theatre, a respected Shakespearean playhouse, its director Andrew Dalton and many of its actors have been enlisted in the military, so the board of directors is contemplating canceling the upcoming season. The director’s wife, Maggie Dalton (Michelle Hand), has other ideas, however, and she approaches the Oberon’s celebrated leading lady Celeste Fielding (Kari Ely) with an unusual idea–why not keep the season going, and go ahead with producing the planned production of Shakespeare’s Henriad (Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V), but with a cast of women? After a bit of convincing, the board’s somewhat obtuse chairman Ellsworth Snow (Gary Wayne Barker) agrees, and his wife Winnifred (Katy Keating) signs up to participate. Then, casting needs to happen, as Maggie works with stage manager Stuart (Ben Nordstrom) and seamstress and costumer Ida (Jacqueline Thompson) to prepare for the play, eventually casting two young women whose husbands are serving overseas–the enthusiastic June (Mary McNulty), and the more reticent but highly talented Grace (Laura Resinger). As rehearsal proceeds, Maggie and company encounter various obstacles and conundrums, such as dealing with various societal restrictions, biases and prejudices, as well as efforts to keep up morale during the war as most of the women have husbands who are serving. There’s also the issue of long-time “star” Celeste, who is facing the reality of aging out of some of her most beloved roles, and Maggie’s efforts to find her own voice as a director rather than living in the shadow of her well-respected husband. Some of the more specific plot points are better to find out as the play goes along, but it’s an excellent look at challenging widely accepted conventions and injustices of the time while also providing a window into life in the 1940s in terms of sights, sounds, cultural references, and styles.

The advertising is billing this show as “A League of Their Own meets Henry V“, and I think that’s an apt comparison, because in addition to its World War II-era setting, one of the things that characterized the film A League of Their Own was its clear affection for its subject matter, which in that case was baseball. In Into the Breeches! the subject is theatre, and the affection is on clear display. It provides a look at the inner workings of a theatre in the 1940s, as well as an examination of themes from Shakespeare as applied to the situations in the story, and how the company eventually uses those applications in their production. It’s also a nice touch that playwright George Brant’s script–which has been produced before in other cities–has been adapted slightly to adjust the setting to St. Louis. The setting makes the story even more immediate.

Speaking of setting, the production values here are superb. Margery and Peter Spack have designed a set that works as something of a time machine, re-creating the backstage of a 1940s theatre in exquisite detail. Michelle Friedman Siler’s costumes are also excellently detailed and authentic to the era. There’s also strong atmospheric lighting by Joe Clapper and impressive sound design by Rusty Wandall, taking the audience back to the 1940s with clarity and charm.

There’s a wonderful cast here, too, led by the ideally cast Hand as Maggie, bringing an air of determination and authority as well as vulnerability to her role. Ely is also a marvel as Celeste, hamming it up when appropriate but also portraying a credible sense of the consummate actress and a degree of insecurity about the passage of time. There are also excellent performances from Keating, believably playing older as the enthusiastic Winnifred; Resinger as the initially fearful but determined, talented Grace; McNulty as the energetic June; Thompson as the resourceful, also determined Ida; Nordstrom, who has some excellent comic moments as Stuart, who finds delight in his new role; and Barker, who lends his support as the stubborn, set-in-his ways but ultimately persuadable Ellsworth. It’s a strong ensemble all around, and a real sense of rapport develops among them that adds to the overall momentum of the play, to the point where, when the show eventually ends, I wish it could continue, to spend just a little more time with these characters and witnessing what they have created.

Into the Breeches! is an intelligent, funny, sometimes poignant play that makes excellent use of its time, place, and Shakespearean source material. It’s about challenging conventions, pushing boundaries, forming bonds of friendship and family, and an unmistakable love of the theatrical. In fact, I could easily see this show being adapted as a film. If the playwright isn’t exploring that possibility already, he should. I think it could work. It’s also a wonderful way to kick off a new chapter for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, and it makes me even more eager to see what’s ahead for the “In the Works” series.

Michelle Hand, Laura Resinger, Kari Ely
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is presenting Into the Breeches! at the Grandel Theatre until November 18, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

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