Review by Jack Kirchhoff
The play within a play is a grand old convention in theater, from Hamlet through Noises Off, and George Brant’s delightful backstage comedy Into the Breeches!, which opened Saturday, Aug. 11, at Bratton Theater, is an impressive addition to the genre.
Brant’s new play — the Chautauqua Theater Company’s is only the second time it’s ever been produced — is set in 1942, after all the able-bodied men have been shipped off to fight the Nazis. But the Buffalo Oberon Play House’s Maggie Dalton (played with passion and enthusiasm by Nisi Sturgis) is undaunted. She plans to “continue with the season as planned” before the war — that is, to produce Shakespeare’s Henry plays — and she’s not going to let the community’s lack of men keep her from doing it.
Maggie is the wife of, and longtime assistant to, the now-soldiering Andrew Dalton, the playhouse’s usual artistic director. She has her husband’s notes and long-distance cooperation, and a very great deal of determination. She is more than ready to take on the naysayers who think it just can’t be done, especially the ultra-conservative board member Ellsworth Snow (Jeff Talbott), a businessman who opposes her from step one and predicts disaster for the project — people will throw tomatoes, he says.
There are other problems. Maggie must also deal with the company’s resident diva, Celeste Fielding (CTC veteran Carol Halstead), who refuses to admit that she’s simply too old for some roles, including the young Prince Hal. But Maggie gets her on board — a play without Celeste is unthinkable — and puts off dealing with the casting issue.
Celeste starts off, however, demanding that because she is playing a man’s role, she should be paid. Men have always been paid, but if Celeste draws a check, it would be the first time in the history of the company that any woman received a payment. The other cast members also think being paid would be a fine thing, and Maggie is soon squaring off against Ellsworth again, and once again, she prevails. One of the many delights of this play is watching Maggie manipulate Ellsworth around on several different issues.
Gradually, the cast fills out. Ellsworth’s wife, Winifred Snow, (Peggy Roeder) is the first of Maggie’s recruits, and no small factor in overcoming her husband’s initial negativity. Army wives June Beckett (Jenny Latimer) and Grace Richards (Jennifer Holcombe) show up for auditions and are added to the ensemble, though neither has much experience on-stage.
Stage manager Stuart Lasker (Brian Sills) volunteers to take on a role, and costume designer Ida Green (Janet Fiki) is enlisted as well. Each presents a new challenge for Maggie to overcome: If women playing men is a problem for Ellsworth, and it is, Stuart playing Mistress Quickly is something else again; as for Ida, there has never been a black actor on the stage of the Buffalo Oberon. (Last spring’s first ever-production of Into the Breeches!, by the way, was set in Providence, Rhode Island, where the Trinity Repertory Company brought it to life. But it translates easily to Buffalo and environs, and could be set in almost any U.S. city.)
When Maggie finally gets up the nerve to tell Celeste she is going to play the young prince’s father, and that the talented, if inexperienced, Grace will play the title character, Celeste storms off the stage, heading to a local children’s theater to play Cinderella, of all things.
The problems multiply. Snow’s wife, Winifred, cast as Henry’s companion Falstaff, is a terrible actress, a problem Maggie solves by suggesting she put some Groucho Marx into her Falstaff. The addition of a mustache helps, and Winifred — to Maggie’s great relief (and Ellsworth’s) — turns out to be funny.
Into the Breeches! — the punning title refers to the famous line “Once more unto the breach, dear friends,” from Henry V — nods to some serious issues, not least among them the effect of war on those left behind, and including racism, gender bias, inclusiveness and community. And you may well weep at the conclusion, which is moving without being overly sentimental. But before that, again and again, you’ll laugh out loud. This is the most fun I’ve had in a theater in a long time.
Nisi Sturgis, obviously, is the rock upon which the play is built, and her droll humor one of its absolute strengths. I also especially liked Jenny Latimer’s exuberant June, and Jeff Talbott somehow makes Ellsworth credible and sympathetic, for all his stick-in-the-mudness. Brian Sills and Janet Fiki share one of the most moving scenes in the play. In fact, the ensemble cast is excellent from top to bottom, and director Laura Kepley steers them adeptly through the play’s sharp turns and clever dialogue. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Carol Halstead’s over-the-top Celeste is worth the price of admission all by itself; I can’t give any detail about her “masculine walking workshop,” but trust me, it is beyond hysterical.
Into the Breeches! is playing at Bratton until Aug. 17. If you like smart, boffo comedy with a subtle touch of darkness, you should check it out.
Jack Kirchhoff is a retired arts journalist, theater critic and book reviewer living in Toronto.