Photo by Roger Mastroianni
There’s an old saying in theatre that “the show must go on.” Cleveland Play House, which is the longest running nonprofit professional theatre company in the U.S., has taken this to heart. Over the past 104 years, no matter the status of the world, CPH hasn’t missed a single season.
When commissioned to write a short play about CPH’s longevity, George Brant discovered through the archives that the theatre continued to function despite the loss of talent and skill to the World War II effort. By recruiting local talent, they continued to provide the public with much-needed escapism.
The resulting work, Into the Breeches!, offers audiences many laughs, but because it was inspired by actual letters written during World War II, those laughs are grounded by a solemn reality. This is beautifully balanced in Cleveland Play House’s production of Brant’s work, which proves how the arts are conduits for transformation, inspiration and reflection, even during one of humanity’s darkest hours.
This is exactly what Maggie Dalton does when her husband, the longtime director of the Oberon Play House, and the rest of the theatre’s regular company is deployed in Into the Breeches! Garnering the begrudging support of the Oberon’s board of directors’ chairman, Ellsworth Snow, she begins casting women to fill the many masculine roles featured in Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V.
Longtime actress Celeste, who tends to play roles much younger than her appearance allows for, cast herself as youthful Prince Harry. Other roles are filled by enthusiastic housewife June, shy, downtrodden mother Grace and Winifred Snow, whose casting made funding for the show possible.
Maggie also employs stage manager, Stuart, and costumer, Ida, to take the stage for the first time in order to fill out the lofty casting demands of the Henry plays.
The play follows these women (and one man) throughout their preparation for opening night, all of which takes place on Robert Mark Morgan’s set, which resembles a backstage space complete with draping ropes, costume racks, and free-standing doors that lead to nowhere.
Jane Shaw’s soundtrack and Angela Calin’s costumes remind us that we are in a different time, as does the social commentary strewn throughout the show.
CPH’s artistic director, Laura Kepley, has found a fine balance in her direction of this play, alternating humor with moments of solemn reflection with grace.
Nisi Sturgis is a strong presence on the stage, authoritative in her own portrayal as Maggie. The opposite can be said for her character, who refers to herself as a parrot because she lacks confidence to make decisions without consulting her husband.
Celeste, on the other hand, is as emboldened as they come; however, she believes that she needs a man directing her ensure she stays in-line. She is well-played by the strong, properly over-dramatic Tina Stafford.
Elisabeth A. Yancey is fantastic as the shy, yet talented Grace, who has always been held back by her husband. Another woman who grows into her potential is June, played by the pleasant Courtney Stennett.
Some of the most powerful moments of the show are when Stuart and Ida, played by the talented Brian Sills and Comfort Dolo, respectively, attempt to aid the war effort but are denied because of their sexuality and race.
Peggy Roeder practically steals the show with her humorous, sweet embodiment of Winifred Snow. Her physical comedy is just as powerful as her dialogue, the most touching of which is when she expresses excitement over having her own money to spend on Christmas presents for her husband, who is played by the endearing Jeff Talbott.
All of the characters on stage go through changes that, while a bit cliché and expected, are charming. While every member of the cast masters the comedy in the script, the deeper messages behind the show are never lost.
The theatre can be a powerful reflection of the world around us. It can stimulate change and gives voices to those who desperately need to be heard.
The arts are far more important than people give them credit for—and if you believe otherwise, take a seat at Into the Breeches! and let Cleveland Play House prove you wrong.
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