Saturday, April 6, 2019

ASF: "Into the Breeches"

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival just added George Brant's infectiously delightful comedy-drama Into the Breeches into its repertory season. -- Our Town and Romeo and Juliet have been playing for a while, with Steel Magnolias a recent addition. -- Into the Breeches, directed assuredly by Shana Gozansky, has the six "steel magnolias" joined by two men from the Our Town cast, taking the Octagon Stage by storm and earning laugh-out-loud moments, exit applause, tearfully moving episodes, bristling indignation, and a long spontaneous standing ovation.

Set during World War II in Montgomery, AL [the location changes depending on where the play is produced] at the fictitious Oberon Theatre [Scott C. Neale created the evocative set], where Ellsworth Snow [James Judy] threatens to cancel their season of Shakespeare's Henry plays because the men are away at the war. -- Undaunted, Maggie Dalton [Greta Lambert], the wife of the absent artistic director, is determined that "the show must go on" with an all-female cast she promises to recruit and direct. When she conscripts Ellsworth's wife Winifred [Marcy McGuigan], the first battle is won; but there are a lot more obstacles in her way.

Winifred wants to help but is a terrible actor; middle-aged diva Celeste [Allison Briner Dardenne] assumes she will play the lead role of Prince Hal, though she is clearly too-long-in-the-tooth for the part; auditions day supplies only two inexperienced young women -- eager Grace [Sarah Walker Thornton] and timid June [Gracie Winchester], whose husbands are also away fighting; and the group's African American costume designer Ida [Tracy Conyer Lee] and gay stage manager Stuart [Grant Chapman] will eventually complete the rag-tag performance troupe.

The challenges of learning lines and impersonating men, and interpolating Groucho Marx into a characterization of Falstaff [a couple of hilariously funny moments that threatened to stop the show], are balanced by the pathos of the women's concern for their men in battle, and their bonds of inclusiveness in the face of racism and homophobia.

With famous English actress Glenda Jackson currently playing King Lear on Broadway at the age of 82 as a model, there should be no doubt that the women of Into the Breeches are up to the challenge. -- Brant's script affords each character specific moments of attention at which these actors shine, yet no one is the show's star; as the script dictates, we watch them develop acting skills and the self-confidence to make Shakespeare's words resonate both for the 1940s and today.

They are an ensemble of the first order, becoming the "band of brothers" made famous in Henry V's "St. Crispin's Day speech" that was used by Laurence Olivier to raise the spirits of the British during World War II, and rendered here most powerfully. We laugh with them as they learn to trust themselves and one another, we cry with them in their distressful separation from their spouses, we support them in overcoming social prejudices -- in short, we invest in their lives. And they emerge triumphant.

Into the Breeches, with its aforementioned set, stunning costumes by Olivera Gajic, effective wigs by Matthew Reeves Oliver, glorious soundscape of period songs from Pornchanok Kanchanabanca, inspired lighting by Annie Wiegand, and flawless acting, is bright and witty, often boisterously funny, and an ultimately moving piece of theatre that ought to be seen.