Traditionally, Chautauqua Theater Company ends its mainstage season with a play from Shakespeare’s canon, such as The Tempest or last year’s Romeo & Juliet.
This season, CTC is continuing that legacy with two different productions. Both, however, come with a catch.
At 2:15 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 15, in Bratton Theater, CTC continues its run of Into the Breeches!, a new comedy about a troupe of women who stage the Henriad while their husbands are fighting overseas in World War II. Later, Free Will: Chautauqua Shakespeare in the Park concludes its tour of Chautauqua County with a Woodstock-inspired As You Like It at 7 p.m. in Jamestown, as part of the Allen Park Bandshell Performance Series.
In Into the Breeches!, conservatory actor Jennifer Holcombe plays Henry V through the lens of Grace Richards, a woman whose confidence on and off stage grows as she rehearses the Bard’s prose. Holcombe said Grace’s journey is similar to that of As You Like It’s Rosalind, who finds her voice when she flees to the Forest of Arden and disguises herself as a man.
Holcombe said she feels a special connection with Rosalind, a longtime dream role for the actor.
“I think she has this really wonderful arc of having to always watch her step and always censor every word that she says, and then to be able to go to the forest, which is this beautiful place of freedom where there is nobody watching … and be able to just live the life that she wants to have,” Holcombe said.
The actor compares Rosalind’s experience to her own upbringing near Atlanta, Georgia, where she felt pressured to conform to certain gender roles.
“I identify very similarly to Rosalind’s journey of ignoring what people’s expectations are for her and simply being herself as fully as she can possibly be,” Holcombe said. “I think Shakespeare did a wonderful job of writing a human experience and writing that feeling of liberation through a new journey in life.”
Holcombe said Rosalind’s journey parallels Grace’s transformation throughout Into the Breeches! from a shy and soft-spoken mother to a confident actor.
“Because her husband is off at war, she is finally able to pursue this art that she’s been interested and intrigued by, and as soon as she gets into the room, it’s like there’s magic happening,” Holcombe said. “It really allows her to expand in a really gorgeous way that I think by the end of the show shows yet again how not only can your own belief in yourself be a powerful thing, but others’ confidence in you can be as well.”
Expanding the canon
In Elizabethan England, men performed all of Shakespeare’s roles, as women were legally barred from acting until 1662 when Charles II reversed the law with a royal proclamation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was still taboo for women to appear on stage, and gender-bent performances of roles like Romeo and Hamlet were few and far between.
Although nowadays women regularly play roles like Juliet and Lady Macbeth, playwright George Brant said he wrote Into the Breeches! as an avenue for women to take a stab at Shakespeare’s other iconic characters, like Falstaff and Hotspur.
Director Laura Kepley said that knowledge of Henry IV, Part 1 or 2 and Henry V is not necessary for theatergoers to enjoy Into the Breeches!
“George does a great job of explaining what the context is throughout the show, and I think it also gives you the greatest hits of those three plays,” said Kepley, who came to Chautauqua from the Cleveland Play House.
Kepley said Into the Breeches! also gives female actors an opportunity to practice stage combat and sword- fighting skills that are often reserved for their male co-stars.
“For a lot of us who trained as actors, we’ll take all of the hand-to-hand combat and sword and rapier combat (classes) and then never get to use it in our career,” she said. “This is an opportunity, too, because sword fighting is really, really fun and ladies never get to do it.”
Assistant director Stori Ayers said that women on stage are usually the victims of violence rather than active combatants.
“The two things that I find as a woman actress and from other woman actresses is that the only combat that you typically use is a lot of falling and getting slapped,” Ayers said.
Conservatory actor Janet Fiki, who plays costume designer Ida Green, said Into the Breeches! marks her first time wielding a sword in a play.
“I did A Raisin in the Sun last quarter in school … and Beneatha gets slapped, and that I guess would have been the closest thing to some type of combat that I’ve had on stage,” Fiki said.
Given CTC’s short rehearsal window, Fiki and Holcombe only had two days with fight director Adriano Gatto. Throughout the rehearsal process, the actors sent Gatto videos of their progress, to which he would respond with notes.
Guest artist Brian Sills served as the play’s fight captain in addition to playing the role of Stuart Lasker, the stage manager of the fictitious Oberon Play House. Sills said the actors practice the fight scene before every performance in order to ensure their safety.
“In the heat of the moment when emotions are flying and adrenaline is pumping, you have to drop into choreography for safety because things can get out of hand,” Sills said. “The last thing we want is anyone getting impaled.”
Holcombe said that the show-within-a-show nature of Into the Breeches! comes with a safety net should the sword fight scene ever go sour during a performance.
“It’s lovely because we have this built in layer of ‘We’re in rehearsal,’ so if something ever does happen on stage, we can stop and/or we can go back to a moment,” Holcombe said.
Shakespeare in the Park
CTC Artistic Director Andrew Borba also set As You Like It in another time period, likening Rosalind’s escape from the oppressive and patriarcal court to the hippie movement’s call for love and freedom. Rather than invite this comparison through changes to Shakespeare’s script, Borba tasked costume design fellow Jennifer Clark and sound design fellow Jeff Sherwood with constructing tie-dyed clothes and songs from the ’60s.
The cast’s eight conservatory actors take on 14 roles, which involves frequent costume changes and a gender-bent Touchstone and Audrey. Because CTC staged As You Like It periodically throughout the summer, brush-up rehearsals helped the cast members remember their Elizabethan lines.
“You keep it on a low simmer on the back burner,” Borba said, “so that when you actually need to start cooking again and put it on the front burner, it’s ready.”
Conservatory actor Alex Brightwell said these rehearsals also helped the cast adapt its blocking to new performance spaces, such as on Bestor Plaza and at Southern Tier Brewing Company in Lakewood — where audience members enjoyed beer with their Shakespeare.
Brightwell plays Old Adam and Silvius, a shepherd who harbors an unrequited love for a woman named Phoebe.
“He doesn’t know how to contain it, and he expresses it to the world constantly,” Brightwell said.
For one scene, Brightwell makes a dramatic exit that has been reworked to each venue’s unique environment. For example, the performance on the grounds saw Brightwell bolt from the fountain to Smith Memorial Library, turning heads of the Chautauquans passing by.
“It felt so right for the character, and what’s so great about the show is that it opens up the world,” Brightwell said. “It’s an endurance test because I’m running and yelling, but it’s such a fun moment to do and it says so much about the character.”
At Southern Tier, Brightwell adapted his blocking by sprinting up a hill, whereas at Mayville’s Lakeside Park, he and Borba took advantage of the nearby water by having the actor enter the stage via kayak.
Borba said he hopes to start a new tradition by staging another traveling Shakespeare production next season. In this way, he said CTC’s programming will continue to meet the needs of Chautauquans while championing Institution President Michael E. Hill’s mission to make Chautauqua Institution more accessible.
“It has to do with not just ‘gates into gateways,’ but embracing your community,” Borba said. “That’s why all the plays fit into that this year — and not just fit into it, but explore it and celebrate it.”