Review: Northlight rallies first-rate cast for comic 'Into the Breeches!'
"Into the Breeches!" -- ★ ★ ★
Shakespeare and proto-feminism joyously combine in Northlight Theatre's regional premiere of "Into the Breeches!" -- a delightful 2018 comedy written by Morton Grove native George Brant. The play's clever pun title, a variation on a rallying cry from "Henry V," offers up clues as to what's to come.
Set in 1942, "Into the Breeches!" imagines the efforts of enterprising first-time theater director Maggie Dalton (Darci Nalepa) to stage an epic adaptation of three Shakespeare history plays (Parts I and II of "Henry IV" and "Henry V") with an all-female cast. The gender switch is necessary to keep the Oberon Play House running with many men off fighting in World War II, including Maggie's unseen theater producer husband.
Maggie faces skepticism for her long-distance artistic collaboration with her husband. She also must sell both moneyed theater board member Ellsworth Snow (Fred Zimmerman) and the Oberon's grande dame leading lady, Celeste Fielding (Hollis Resnik), on her plan.
Then there's the matter of turning amateurs Winifred Snow (Penny Slusher), Grace Richards (Annie Munch) and June Bennett (Molly Hernandez) into believable Shakespearean actors. They struggle to learn their lines, most facing the uncertainty of their husbands fighting at the front.
Bolstering Maggie's efforts are costume designer Ida Green (Penelope Walker) and stage manager Stuart Lasker (Mitchell Fain). Yet their valiant offers of help lead to bigger societal challenges of integration and tolerance.
The basic will-they-or-won't-they-succeed plot drives the drama of "Into the Breeches!" There's also plenty of natural humor from the rehearsal process.
Backstage jealousies arise, especially when Maggie suggests that Grace and Celeste switch leading roles to be more age appropriate. Meanwhile efforts to make the women act more manly -- with an extended bit about codpieces -- leave the audience in stitches.
In light of the views and biases of the play's era, however, "Into the Breeches!" ends a tad too tidily.
Yet Brant's comedy does make several important statements on the unifying power of art and the importance of sisterhood. He also scores points for increasing the audience's ownership of the play by allowing it to be reset in Evanston. (Previous productions were localized to Providence, Rhode Island, and Montgomery, Alabama.)
Director Jessica Thebus and her top-notch cast and crew have a field day bringing this theatrical love letter to life. From Samantha C. Jones' gorgeous period costumes to the determined and comical performances by Nalepa, Resnik, Slusher and others, everything works in tandem for "Into the Breeches!"
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Location: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300 or northlight.org
Showtimes: 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (no matinee May 29), 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday (also 7 p.m. June 2); through June 16
Running time: About 2 hours and 15 minutes with intermission
Parking: Free adjacent parking garage and lot
Rating: Some mild sexuality, but largely for general audiences