Sunday, November 4, 2018

INTO THE BREECHES! • Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Since 2001, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has been chiefly known for thrilling audiences with its annual, free summer productions in Forest Park, and its education/touring program, In the Schools, has been in place since that first season, exposing kids to Shakespeare with performances and workshops. 2012 brought In the Streets, featuring an original work based on one of Shakespeare’s plays, performed in and thematically tailored to reflect the character of highlighted neighborhoods, and of course there’s Shake 38, launched in 2010 -- a marathon five day festival with various companies staging all of Shakespeare's 38 plays in a variety of locations around the city.

Winnifred (Katy Keating), Ellsworth (Gary Wayne Barker)
and Maggie (Michelle Hand).
Photo credit: Phillip Hamer Photography
Its new program, In the Works, showcases contemporary American plays with a kinship to Shakespeare, and George Brant’s heartening and heroic Into the Breeches! makes its regional debut as the Festival’s inaugural headliner. Also featured are family matinees of A Most Outrageous Fit of Madness, inspired by The Comedy of Errors and written by the Festival’s playwright-in-residence, actor and director Nancy Bell, along with staged readings of Michael Sáenz’s coming-of-age story, The Thousand Natural Shocks.

Into the Breeches! is set during WWII, and while the men are off fighting, the Oberon Play House has been left with its season interrupted. The theatre’s resident director is also overseas, but his wife, Maggie (Michelle Hand), is struck with the idea of putting on Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, with a cast of women (and eventually one man). The resident prima donna, Celeste (Kari Ely), gets behind the idea, but Oberon Play House executive, Ellsworth (Gary Wayne Barker) has his doubts. After a minimal group of women are cast, Maggie starts to encounter and overcome the societal obstacles of the day, and that’s where the heart of this play resides.

Celeste (Kari Ely), Winnifred (Katy Keating),
Ida (Jacqueline Thompson), June (Mary McNulty)
and Maggie (Michelle Hand).
Photo credit: Phillip Hamer Photography
Within Brant’s spirited comedy, you also have Ida (Jacqueline Thompson), the troupe’s costume designer, who’s turned away from the blood bank because they have enough “negro” blood, and Stuart, (Ben Nordstrom), Oberon’s stage manager, whose desire to serve his country is refused because he looks like he might be a “swish.” Though Maggie tries to drag the community’s backstage players into the footlights, she’s brushed off for indulging in folly, while Celeste, an illustrious member of the company, is not paid for her work.

Stuart (Ben Nordstrom) and Ida (Jacqueline Thompson).
Photo credit: Phillip Hamer Photography
Bell’s direction is impeccable, and the show is superbly cast. Irrepressible and introspective, a valiant Hand anchors the players as Maggie, their fearless leader, and Ely gracefully endows the divalike Celeste with depths under her humorous affectation. Barker’s adorably obstinate Ellsworth hides a loving heart of gold even though he’s mired in the 40’s-era status quo, and Thompson is resilient as Ida, pushed off to the margins because of her race. Nordstrom is in top form as a dynamic but ostracized Stuart, and a priceless Katy Keating is excellent as Ellsworth’s wife, Winnifred, who makes a delightful turn in the part she’s offered to play. Laura Resinger is Grace, struggling with the absence of overseas letters from her husband, and Mary McNulty is a very funny and genial June, busily holding scrap metal drives to contribute to the war effort.

Celeste (Kari Ely) and Maggie (Michelle Hand).
Photo credit: Phillip Hamer Photography
Into the Breeches! was originally set in Providence, Rhode Island where it debuted in January at the Trinity Repertory Company, but there have been several local references included, adding a charming touch. Joe Clapper’s lights gently focus the audience’s attention, nicely setting off Margery and Peter Spack’s skillfully realized backstage set design.

With an invigorating assertion of the ability of the arts to bridge divides and a warm embrace of diversity and common ground, we’re lucky to have this play right now. Go see it. It’s at the Grandel Theatre until the 24th.

Grace (Laura Resinger).
Photo credit: Phillip Hamer Photography
• Michael Sáenz’s The Thousand Natural Shocks -- two staged readings are scheduled at 10am on Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 6-8

• Nancy Bell’s A Most Outrageous Fit of Madness -- matinee performances are scheduled at 4pm on Saturdays (Nov. 10, 17, 24).


Written by George Brant
Directed by Nancy Bell
The Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
through November 24 | tickets: $20 - $40
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm

June (Mary McNulty).
Photo credit: Phillip Hamer Photography
Ellsworth: Gary Wayne Barker*
Celeste: Kari Ely*
Maggie: Michelle Hand
Winnifred: Katy Keating
June: Mary McNulty*
Stuart: Ben Nordstrom*
Grace: Laura Resinger
Ida: Jacqueline Thompson*

Scenic Design: Margery and Peter Spack
Costume Design: Michele Friedman Siler
Lighting Design: Joe Clapper
Sound Design: Rusty Wandall
Production Manager: Tom Martin
Stage Manager: Kathryn Ballard*
Props Master: Meg Brinkley
Dramaturg/Assistant Director: Kelley Abel
Assistant Stage Managers: Avery Lowe and Orevia Vongsa

* Denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of
Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States

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