"Into the Breeches" cast members (left to right) Taylor Henderson, Katie MacNichol, Melanie Lora, Rosemarie Chandler and Mikaela Macias. Top: Shana Wride. Photo by Aaron Rumley
North Coast Repertory Theatre’s “Into the Breeches!” is one of the surprises of the year. I knew this play about WWII-era women who (and I mean this with all due respect) manfully team up to stage a Shakespearean production at a Providence theater while all the boys are “over there” (I know … wrong world war, but they used it in “Into the Breeches!” too) would be entertaining, and it is. I knew it might come with sight gags, and it does, one of which is a doozy. I knew it would warm the heart on occasion, and it does.
What I didn’t count on what the unexpected depth of this 2018 work by George Brant (“Grounded”). Without shouting from the Rhode Island rooftops, “Into the Breeches!” champions inclusivity in the theater and otherwise, taking pointed aim at gender expectations and discrimination, racism and homophobia.
“Into the Breeches!” is not a “message play.” Its commentary is embedded in the telling of the story and in the investment we quickly make in all of its characters. Were this not so, it might not be the two-hour pleasure that it is.
At the respected Oberon Play House in Providence, Maggie Dalton (Melanie Lora), the wife of its at-war star director, has a brainstorm: With the men all gone and the theater dark, why not stage a production of The Bard’s venerable “Henrys” with an all-woman cast? Though her suggestion is treated as totally outrageous by both the Oberon’s resident diva, Celeste Fielding (Katie MacNichol) and its stuffy board president Ellsworth Snow (James Newcomb), it shouldn’t be. After all, when Shakespeare himself was staging his works back in the Elizabethan day, men played all the parts. Desdemona, Lady Macbeth, Juliet, Portia, you name her.
It’s Maggie’s sheer willpower that overpowers both Celeste and Snow, and so begin auditions in the community. Recruited are two young women whose husbands are fighting the good fight abroad: the childlike June Bennett (Mikaela Macias) and Grace Richards (Rosemarie Chandler), who demonstrates immediate and impressive talent for Shakespeare. Brought into the fold as a means of keeping Snow on their side is his dizzy wife Winifred (Shana Wride), whose thespian ability would seem “big” enough to occupy the tip of a pencil.
And watching from the wings are two back-stagers who will play a significant role in the production but also in the unfolding of the tale: the stage manager Stuart Lasker (Geno Carr) and costumer Ida Green (Taylor Henderson).
A push-and-pull between Maggie, who is directing, and Celeste, who is diva-ing, complicates matters, as does an important decision Maggie must make about Stuart and Ida’s participation in the production. There’s little suspense that it will all be worked out, but “Into the Breeches!” director Diana Van Fossen has the pacing and transitions working from start to finish, and it’s that aforementioned bond we make with the characters that wins the day.
Lora, so mysterious and alluring in North Coast Rep’s production of “The Homecoming” earlier this year, does a complete 180 as solid-as-a-rock Maggie Dalton and is even better here in a more substantial role. MacNichol is having a blast as over-emoting Celeste. Her teaching the young women how to walk like a man – with quite the prop – is worth the price of admission. Wride has the choice comic part of Winifred Snow and definitely makes the most of it.
All in the ensemble contribute to what is a show that’s easy to like and thoughtful enough to care about.
Bonus for Shakespeareans: the timeless language of the “Henrys,” in particular the powerful “Band of Brothers” speech.
Bonus for wartime period nostalgists: between-scene tunes in the house like “In the Mood,” “Take the A Train” and “Boogie Woogie Piggy.”
“Into the Breeches” runs through Nov. 13 at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
Left to right: Brian Mackey, Michael Cusimano and John Wells III in "Ken Ludwig's Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery." Photo courtesy of Lamb's Players Theatre
Hats off to Angela Chatelain Avila, Michael Cusimano and especially Omri Schein, the three quick-costume-change actors in Lamb’s Players Theatre’s production of “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery.” Their morphing from character to character with barely a half-minute offstage is the plum of this farcical take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Schein, one of the top character actors on San Diego stages, can win a hearty laugh with a mere facial expression or grunt, and this production is funniest whenever he’s onstage. Happily, that’s most of the time.
I first saw this show in 2015 when the Old Globe produced it in its theater-in-the-round Sheryl and Harvey White space. Making ingenious use of the intimate confines, that “Baskerville” had props dropping from anywhere and everywhere, and cast members coming and going constantly. In Lamb’s much larger setting, the kinetic craziness of that Globe staging is absent, making this “Baskerville” directed by Robert Smyth more conventional comedy. The quick changes are just as head-spinning, but the pace of the play is more sluggish. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” novel is complex and probably too long; Ludwig’s fun with it comes off as more complex than it should be, and it’s certainly too long, even at 90 minutes.
Here, Brian Mackey occupies the starring role as the lanky, supremely self-confident and eminently arrogant Holmes. John Wells III is the trusted companion and chronicler of Holmes’ feats, Dr. John Watson. While both of them are very good as these well-known characters, theirs are the straight-men parts, mostly reacting to the antics of the other 30-something characters played by Cusimano, Avila and Schein.
If there’s a benefit to “Baskerville” being on a larger stage it’s the ability to utilize projections (designed by Christian Turner) to create the backdrop for 221 B Baker St. or Baskerville Hall or the lonely and deadly moor of the story. Props are few and really not needed anyway.
“The Hound of the Baskervilles” like all of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures is, but for the smug detective’s ironical quips, without any humor at all. That makes this tale ideal for parody, not unlike the way Mel Brooks masterfully turned Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” into a comedy-film classic.
The story of a mysterious and lethal hound that stalks the environs of Baskerville Hall in Devonshire, England, is told pretty faithfully in Ludwig’s script, with the comedy sprinkled over it practically from start to finish. It nonetheless can be too expository and explanatory as the truth of the tale is bit by bit revealed. This makes the show highly reliant on the performances of the quick-changing character actors, even more than on its Holmes and Watson.
Cusimano spends most of his time as the loud but likable Texan Henry Baskerville though does duty throughout in a number of other roles, including Doyle’s recurring Inspector Lestrade.
Avila tackles everything from the lovely Beryl Stapleton, Henry’s love interest, to the Cockney Baker Street Irregular boy Cartwright. Her finest moments, though, are as Mrs. Barrymore, the female half of the pair that tends to Baskerville Hall. She brings to mind a hybrid between Elsa Lanchester in “The Bride of Frankenstein” (that hair!) and Cloris Leachman’s brilliant Frau Blucher in Brooks’ “Frankenstein” spoof.
It’s hard to know where to start with the tireless Schein. His meatiest part is that of the butterfly-seeking villain Stapleton, but he’s everywhere in this show: as the kinda creepy Dr. Mortimer who brings the Baskerville legend to Holmes’ attention; as the kinda creepier manservant Barrymore; to the frightening convict Selden, trying to escape capture out on the moor; to any number of clerks and cameos, of either gender. Schein just shines.
Sight gags abound, the most memorable one being Watson, Baskerville and Mortimer fighting a fierce wind to get from one place to another. No wind machine is used; it’s all improvisation and nicely done.
Holmes purists will find all the joking around at everyone’s expense sacrilege, but this play is not for them. It’s for those who appreciate silliness and a little slapstick and just enough atmosphere to dupe them into thinking they’re in southern England for an hour and a half.
“Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” runs through Nov. 20 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado. A return engagement will be Jan. 3-8.
Kristina Wong in her one-woman show. Photo courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse
Is it too soon to laugh about COVID-19? Is it OK to keep crying about it?
I found myself doing both while in the audience of Kristina Wong’s one-woman production, “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” at La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre. I was acutely aware of the poignancy of the moment: Like everyone else there, I had a mask on (it was required), and I was watching a COVID-era show about Wong and her network of mask-making “aunties” who made a difference in so many people’s lives and undoubtedly saved some too.
Wong is a tireless performer able to toggle back and forth between broad comedy (as when she inflates a balloon, standing in for a cyst she endured on an unmentionable part of her body) and the edge of breakdown (recalling the courageous Asian photographer Corby Lee, a friend lost to the virus).
The 90-minute show is chronological, taking us from the early dark days of the COVID shutdown to late 2021, when masks were being factory-produced and those sewn together with love and sacrifice by Wong and her far-flung volunteer Auntie Sewing Squad (or A.S.S.) were no longer as in demand. We meet the women (and a few men) virtually enlisted by Wong who collectively made more than 350,000 masks for donation to the very neediest.
Along the way, Wong makes time for snippets of searing commentary about the “banana republic” that the great American democracy has so dishearteningly descended into. Neither the anti-vaxxers nor the politicians and especially not the racists escape her sharpened oratorical sword.
Reminders come too of the other terrible events that paralleled the spread of the worst health crisis to date in American history: the murder of George Floyd, the persecution of protesters in its wake, the deadly wildfires of California, the attempted coup of Jan. 6. It’s a lot to tackle in a one hour-and-a-half show but remarkably Wong with only the help of a projection screen and a few props moves things along swiftly and compellingly. There are also bits of audience participation that are clever and mercifully brief.
We know that the COVID crisis has changed but it has not ended. Even so, we should be able to stare it in the face, confront its brutal realities and wring from it what little cathartic triumphs we can. “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” seems like a good place to start.
“Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” runs through Oct. 16 at La Jolla Playhouse.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.