"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.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.