To round out its mainstage season, Chautauqua Theater Company is introducing audiences to Into the Breeches!, a new play that debuted at Trinity Repertory Company last January. CTC Artistic Director Andrew Borba said that although the comedy is young, it feels like an instant classic.
“It has an amazing heart to it of a really old, wonderful chestnut, but it’s not because it actually is the play that we wish somebody had written a while ago,” he said.
The play takes place in 1942 and tells the story of a troupe of women who band together to stage a production of Shakespeare’s Henriad in order to boost morale while their husbands are fighting overseas in World War II. Although they face pushback from their community, the actors forge ahead to ensure the show goes on.
Into the Breeches! opens this weekend and runs through Aug. 17. To help familiarize theatergoers with the new play, CTC is hosting a Brown Bag, titled “Ladies First, Into the Breeches!: Gender and performance in comedy,” at 12:15 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 9, in Bratton Theater. On Tuesday, Aug. 14, CTC will host another Brown Bag focused on the role of art in times of war.
Guest artist Nisi Sturgis plays Maggie Dalton, a woman who comes up with the idea to keep the theater alive while the men are away. Sturgis describes her character as a lifelong thespian who has long supported her husband, the Oberon Play House’s artistic director, but has never had a moment in the spotlight.
“I think she is an idea gal but doesn’t really have the megaphone, so she whispers a lot, and she supports,” Sturgis said. “She is always available for service but has never had the reins, and so this is her time that she’s had an opportunity, and she is so eager and excited and hopeful.”
The play’s real-life director, Laura Kepley, said that between the situational comedy about learning to walk and talk like a man, Into the Breeches! is about overcoming social barriers and constraints.
“The play is really about inclusion, empowerment, finding your voice, finding your true self and about believing and committing to something larger than yourself, making the seemingly impossible possible,” Kepley said.
Kepley said these constraints come not only from men in power who are unable to expand their imaginations, but also from the women who have never considered themselves as anything beyond housewives.
“Over the course of the play, they go on this huge journey of discovery and growth,” Kepley said. “By the end of the play, they couldn’t possibly have imagined at the beginning of the play that that’s where they would be, so it really is about triumph and lifting each other up to become much greater than the sum of the parts.”
George Brant, the playwright of Into the Breeches!, originally set the story in Providence, Rhode Island, but adapted the script for the play’s second production at CTC to instead take place in Buffalo, New York. Although Brant rooted much of the play in factual history, he said he took some artistic liberties, such as when his female characters demand compensation for their work.
“Looking into it, I found lots of fun facts about how the women did step up during World War II. Looking at this time, (there are) a lot of horrible facts about how women weren’t paid until actually the ’70s,” he said. “We are fast-forwarding a bit as far as our progressive ideals.”
While Into the Breeches! samples scenes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V, CTC Artistic Associate Sarah Wansley said that theatergoers do not need to be familiar with English history to enjoy Brant’s comedy. Nevertheless, a poster display on Bratton’s porch will provide synopses of the historical dramas for those who are curious.
“I think what’s most important is those plays are about England going to war for what they believe to be a just cause, and so I think it really connects to what George is writing about — that Americans in that time felt of course that World War II was also a just cause,” Wansley said.
Sturgis said that Into the Breeches! will give audiences a glimpse of what it takes to put a play together as the characters make the most of their limited resources.
“Audiences, I think, will walk away from this show feeling a tremendous amount of joy and hope in seeing that artists are always willing to risk failure in order to connect with other people,” she said.
Sturgis will share the stage with four other guest artists and three conservatory actors: Janet Fiki, Jennifer Holombe and Jenny Latimer.
“Even though I’m on stage for the whole play, it does feel like an ensemble play,” Sturgis said. “It feels like every character is revealing their heart, and I think that audiences will suddenly find that theirs are on the stage with us by the end.”