LOGAN — The idea of watching a play within a play is older than Shakespeare, and it is a well-loved trope of theatre because it works. People enjoy plays that celebrate and/or deconstruct theatre, so I was expecting to really enjoy Into the Breeches! at Lyric Reparatory Company. And while the performances offered were wonderful, this 2018 script by playwright George Brant felt formulaic. By trying so hard to do a lot of things, the play ends up not excelling at any of them. In the end I liked the play, but it I could not fall in love with it.
The play takes place in 1942 at the start of World War II. The Oberon Playhouse is about to go dark because the director and all the male actors are off at the war. The director’s wife Maggie (played by McKenna Walwyn) is determined to keep her husband’s dream alive by producing the season’s Henriad as planned. Her big idea is to cast all the male, or “breeches” roles, with women. So, she sets out to find her cast.
Thus far the premise is great, but each character she finds is written closely to type and then never deviate from expectations. First cast is local diva Celeste Fielding (played by Lacy J. Dunn) who will need to learn how to support her fellow women to help them shine. Celeste is a middle-aged veteran who is struggling to admit she is no longer a Juliet. From the moment Dunn takes the stage, she gives a commanding performance and demands the attention of the audience as well as the other characters. While Celeste is a mostly a thorn in director Maggie’s side, I still loved her.
With the star on board, Maggie rounds out the cast with June Bennett (played by Mia Gatherum), a raw talent who is overly enthusiastic for anything she can do to help the war effort; and Grace Richards (played by Kelly McGaw), who has big talent which can only shine because her husband is away at the war. Impeding Maggie’s vision is gruff board member Ellsworth Snow (played by Christopher Klinger), who is horrorified at Maggie’s crazy, progressive ideas before finally coming around when his wife Winifred (played by Mitzi Mecham) wants to join.
Each of these characters thus far is a two-dimensional stock character, but there’s more. Maggie’s stage manager Stuart (played by Blake Brundy) comes out of the closet as a “swish” to explain why he is not fighting in the war. Unsurprisingly, he was in a dress by intermission, to much laughter from the audience. The other noteworthy character that was Ida Green (played by Kat Lee), who is the company’s costume designer. Ida’s main contribution is to persuade the women, in 1942, to drop all racial prejudices after a two-minute speech, thus integrating the troupe.
Director Adrianne Moore does an excellent job with the script, particularly in finding the humor and pushing the actors to flesh out their stock characters. Also, the dialect work was phenomenal as all the characters had a 1940s New England dialect, which they maintained throughout, even while performing Shakespeare. The best scenes from the Henriad are included, and McGaw’s version of Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech was one of the best moments of the show.
The costumes by Amanda Cardwell-Aiken were wonderful and set the scene of the 1940s. I particularly loved how the uniforms at the end made such a contrast to the feminine pieces the characters wore earlier in the play. Scenic designer Sera Shearer set effectively recreates a 1940s playhouse with restraint and makes it easy to get into the space with the characters. Connor Stevens‘s sound design adds to the mood with 1940s radio sounds. However, the script has a lot of scene breaks where pieces were moved around, which slowed the flow of the show a little.
Notwithstanding the talent on and off stage, Into the Breeches! fell short by trying to do too much. In one show it tries to deal with issues like progress vs. tradition, gender roles, equal opportunity, race relations, LGBT issues, finding confidence in one’s self, and experience that women had working on the home front while waiting for their men to return from war. Brant warps all of that, and more, in a comedy. It is a funny show; the codpiece jokes alone had the audience roaring with laughter. But Brant’s script could have been more powerful if it had more focus. But if audiences are willing to suspend their disbelief and travel to the Oberon Playhouse of 1942, Into the Breeches! is a fun night at the theatre. Moore’s direction lifts the script, and all of the actors give outstanding performances.