THEATER REVEW: “Into the Breeches!” @ Cleveland Play House by Laura Kennelly

Photos by Roger Mastroianni

Through Sun 10/6

George Brant’s Into the Breeches! (2018) is both light-hearted and serious as it focuses on actors, acting and marriages via backstage drama. Directed by Laura Kepley, this Cleveland Play House production imagines how the Oberon Play House not only survives, but triumphs after the director and the usual leading men go to fight in World War II. With only the director’s wife (disparagingly nicknamed “Mrs. Parrot”) to manage, can they still put on the scheduled season, especially the opening play, Shakespeare’s Henriad (a combination of Henry IV, Parts I and II and Henry V)?

The ensemble cast is full of stars, each actor making us relate to them. As Maggie Dalton, the director’s wife who took over when her husband left for war, Nisi Sturgis perfectly conveys the metamorphosis of a retiring 1940s wife. She’s been content to work as a team with her husband, likely feeding him ideas all along. As she realizes that she’s needed to keep the theater alive, we see her activating her own considerable skill set (empathy, perception, grit). Sturgis’ Maggie isn’t perfect, but she’s a real person. That’s what makes us love her.

As the play opens Maggie turns on the theater lights (literally) and gradually gathers her troupe, her posse comitatus. Their mission? To carry on despite the war.

First comes actor Celeste Fielding played by Tina Stafford. Stafford as uber-diva Celeste just tears up the scenery (in a very good way). The poses, the authority, the drama — all delightfully done. She’s sure she (despite her age) must play the hero, the up-and-coming prince.

Next Maggie approaches the monied Snow couple, Ellsworth (a dignified Jeff Talbott), and his wife Winifred (Peggy Roeder) for funding. We think we know them. We don’t. When on impulse Maggie invites Mrs. Snow to join the troupe (so her husband will support them), unintended comic disaster seems quite possible. However, Roeder’s Winnie blossoms as she becomes Falstaff — but not just any Falstaff.

Two more actors hesitantly try out: June Bennett (played by Courtney Stennett) and the shy Grace Richards (played by Elizabeth A. Yancey). Yancy as Grace touchingly portrays some of war’s grief. Stennett’s June enjoys a more upbeat story as she learns to “be” a character. She also gets some of the few Shakespeare lines in the show — and perhaps the most famous ones we hear, the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V — “we happy few, we band of brothers” — that evoke the wish that we could all be such.

The last female invited to don breeches and take a soldier’s role is the African-American costume designer Ida Green, played with warm and wise humor by Comfort Dolo. Brian Sills as Stuart Lasker, the manager, also gets drafted into the play where he enjoys a swishy comic turn as Mistress Quickly.

The Allen Theatre production, thanks to scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan, sound designer Jane Shaw and lighting designer Michael Boll, sports a gritty backstage scene with several levels. Trapped in our behind-the-curtain view, we follow rehearsals. At times imagination and the lights smoothly turn stage sections into golf courses and living rooms. Everything flowed beautifully together.

Costume designer Angela Calin not only created appropriate dresses and uniforms, but also created one surprise comic costume accessory for the ladies in the cast. (You do want to be surprised, don’t you? It’s more fun that way.)

Director Kepley’s program notes tell us Into the Breeches! was inspired by the Cleveland Play House, a theater which stayed open during WWII. In Act I, several gratuitous local references got quick laughs. (Some were more on point than others; for example, while they did build bombers just outside Berea, I’m pretty sure they didn’t build “bombs in Berea.”)

However, the real genius of Brandt’s play is that other local theater communities can easily relate to the storyline, and in fact, do. For example, one critic described the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence 2018 premiere performance as being created for them. Clevelanders can rest assured it was truly inspired by the CLE CPH. According to Kepley, the play’s a product of a 2015 centennial season when local playwrights were challenged to write CPH histories. Brandt’s assignment? The 1940s. What a fortuitous turn of events, as anyone in the opening night audience could tell you.

BOTTOM LINE: A genuinely funny play that takes stereotypes and turns them inside out and then back again. Its often satiric “sorry, not sorry” Cleveland vibe, aided by dynamic physical comedy, wins the day. A brilliant blend of literature and history, comedy and tragedy, the Cleveland Play House’s Into the Breeches! should be on everyone’s “must see” list.

[Written by Laura Kennelly]

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