Chances are if you’re a theatergoer to begin with, you’re at least somewhat intrigued by plays set in the theater world. Playwrights must hope that’s the case. With George Brant’s Into the Breeches!, now onstage at Asolo Rep, the odds are also in favor of audience interest because a) the action is set during World War II, and Sarasota’s age demographic either recalls that era or thinks they do, and b) the playwright tweaks the dialogue and setting depending on the city hosting the production, meaning this one takes place in—you guessed it—Sarasota.
That’s Sarasota in the fall of 1942, at a fictional theater called The Oberon. With all the qualified men of the city off fighting, the theater has been closed, but Maggie (Madeleine Maby) is determined to reopen it, partly because she wants to honor her director-husband in his absence, and partly because she wants to see if she, on her own, can do it. Not only that, she’s planning to put on Shakespeare’s King Henry plays, with women in the largely male roles.
Even stagy, egotistical actress Celeste (Tina Stafford), who lives for the theater and the applause, isn’t sure it will work. But she’s soon swept along by Maggie’s spirit, as is the theater board chair (Matt DeCaro), who’s always either at the yacht club or on the golf course when Maggie pursues him for funding. It helps that he’s crazy about his wife Winifred (Peggy Roeder), a ditzy society matron whom Maggie is canny enough to offer a role.
The rest of the characters are mostly defined by one or two traits, but the actors help to flesh them out. There’s the chipper young June (FSU/Asolo Conservatory student Jillian Cicalese), always at work on some war support project; the lonely, intense Grace (fellow student Amber McNew); the gay stage manager (Grant Chapman); and the African-American costumer (Diana Coates). Everyone has a reason to feel down, but as it so often does, putting on a play brings them happily together.
Brant’s script has some funny moments, especially when the women first try walking around wearing codpieces or when Roeder manages to bring a touch of Groucho Marx to her Falstaff interpretation. It’s not necessarily laugh out loud funny, though—more along the line of chuckles.
But the cast (attired in pleasing period wear by designer Angela Balogh Calin and directed by Laura Kepley) works well, individually and as a unit. Stafford, who plays a similarly over-the-top role in the Asolo’s Murder on the Orient Express, nevertheless gives her character some heart. Roeder is always a pleasure to watch, and DeCaro adds a necessary bit of sour to the proceedings.
One could actually picture McNew playing a young Henry V, as she does here, declaiming some of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches. And Maby, an Asolo newcomer, is a charmer as Maggie; she may doubt herself, but we never do.
Into the Breeches! continues through March 21 in rotating rep. For tickets, call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.