Review: “Into the Breeches!”

Mitchell J. Fain (left) and Penny Slusher in “Into the Breeches.” (Photo by Liz Lauren)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts,
9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through June 16
Tickets: $30-$88
Phone: 847-673-6300

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater critic

George Brant’s “Into the Breeches!” is that rare thing nowadays: a real feel-good play about likable characters doing their best to pull together during difficult times. Add that it’s funny, feminist, and about theater itself while tackling racism, homophobia, sexism, and other forms of narrow-mindedness, and you have a winner—even if it is formulaic, predictable, and unrealistic. This is especially true at Northlight Theatre, where savvy director Jessica Thebus has assembled a stellar cast.

While Brant, a Park Ridge native and Northwestern University alum, has a contemporary perspective, he turns to history for his premise. “Breeches” is set in 1942, early in World War II, leaving the Oberon Play House in Evanston with a problem. All the men are off at war including the theater’s director Andrew Dalton, and it looks like the theater is going to have to shut down for the first time in its quarter-century history rather than going forward with its production of Shakespeare’s “Henraid” – “Henry IV Parts 1 and 2” and “Henry V.”

But Maggie Dalton (Darci Nalepa), Andrew’s wife and assistant (dubbed the “Parrot” by other company members), believes the show must go on, especially since “Henry V” is quintessentially patriotic. Given Andrew’s approval (by mail), she wants to cast the production with women.

In order for her plan to work, Maggie has to persuade Celeste Fielding (Hollis Resnik, marvelously over the top), the company’s aging leading lady who still insists on playing Juliet, to take on the role of a man, and she has to convince board president, Ellsworth Snow (Fred Zimmerman), who fears being made a laughing stock, not to shutter the playhouse. She accomplishes the first by appealing to Celeste’s vanity and love of her craft by telling her she can do anything, and the second by promising a part to Snow’s dotty wife Winifred (Penny Slusher, totally delightful), for whom he’d do anything.

The rest of the evening consists mostly of Maggie and her motley crew encountering—and overcoming – one obstacle after another, often with her arguing with someone until they give in and do what she wants. In the process, the production becomes increasingly progressive and inclusive, even as Maggie realizes she’s moving further and further away from what Andrew would do and becoming a director in her own right. And like the other women she recruits, she worries about her husband because she begins hearing from him less.

The auditions present a major potential setback. There are more than 30 roles to cast, and only two contenders show up: Julie Bennett (Molly Hernandez), an energetic young woman eager to do anything for the war effort, and Grace Richards (Annie Munch), who has hidden acting talent but admits that she couldn’t have come if her husband wasn’t away. Even with Celeste and Winifred, who seems to be talentless and clueless until given some advice and facial hair for playing Falstaff, the ensemble is short some actors, despite the doubling chart Andrew sends.

Then stage manager Stuart Lasker (Mitchell J Fain) volunteers to step in as Hotspur, but that idea is nixed because the selling power of an all-female production would be lost. In addition, gung-ho Julie insists that he should be off at the front, leading him to explain that he was not permitted to enlist because he’s gay. (Winifred’s reaction is amusingly unexpected.)

Lasker turns the tables by showing up in costume as Mistress Quigley, and another taboo is threatened when costume mistress Ida Green (Penelope Walker) says she’d love to play Hotspur and demonstrates that she’s up to the task. But an African American has never appeared on the Oberon stage, and even Maggie has qualms about this—until she doesn’t.

Diva that she is, Celeste naturally raises some issues. First, she insists on being paid now that she’s portraying a man, even though she never was in a countless number of leading female roles, nor were any of the other actresses. Then, when Maggie suggests that she switch roles with Grace as an “experiment,” so that she’s the father, King Henry IV, and Grace is Prince Hal, Celeste goes ballistic and walks out. Winning her back becomes a challenge Maggie procrastinates about, but in one of the more poignant moments revealing her true love of theater, Celeste is actually a step ahead of her.

As opening night approaches, minor squabbles are set aside and everyone pitches in with ideas and work. Ida decides to do away with doublets and hose and instead surprises everyone with modern-dress costumes (a la 1942, of course) that she makes herself.

Along the way, we get to see snippets of Shakespeare—speeches by Hotspur and Falstaff, an exchange between Henry IV and his son, part of a scene between Henry V and his bride-to-be Princess Catherine of France—culminating in Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day Speech. A rallying cry for soldiers in the Bard’s play, here it is used as encouragement for the actors. All of them are so good, it actually would be fun to see more of their “Henriad,” but that’s probably not feasible.

Arnel Sancianco’s scenic design, mainly of the Oberon theater stage, is serviceable, but a little too much scenery moving is required, particularly for Snow’s office and Celeste’s apartment. JR Lederle’s lighting and Kevin O’Donnell’s sound design are fine, and Samantha C. Jones’s costumes stand out. Seeing Slusher as Falstaff in a rolly-polly aviator’s uniform is worth the price of admission.