The other night, I was reminded of a classmate of mine from junior high — Glenn Zarr.
I haven’t seen Glenn in decades, as we wound up attending different high schools.
But I remember Glenn acting in our school’s production of “A Thousand Clowns”
What struck me back then was how competent Glenn was onstage, how he changed. Not only that, but he transformed off the stage too. He was a young teen, but more confident, just … fuller, rounder, somehow, as a person.
(Years later, he appeared on Broadway in a production of “A View From the Bridge.”)
And something similar happens to the characters in George Brant’s “Into the Breeches!,” playing at Florida Repertory Theatre through March 5.
The stage changes them, transforms them.
“I feel alive for the first time,” one of them says about acting.
It’s World War II, and Maggie Dalton (a determined Amy Hutchins) is left in charge of the Providence, Rhode Island, theater she and her husband run. She decides not to close down for the season but instead put on a performance to draw the community together and give them an uplifting experience.
She wants to put on Shakespeare’s Henriad plays, which include “Richard II” and “Henry IV (Part I and Part II).”
But women will have to play the traditionally male roles.
(In Shakespeare’s time, men played all the roles, even the women’s. So turnabout should be fair play, she reasons.)
Doing such a thing is unheard of in 1942.
But men are in short supply, as almost all have gone off to war overseas.
It’s a timely show that resonates, as venues closed during the pandemic or found new ways to present theater, whether outside or on Zoom.
Maggie speaks of “the Linger Effect” — the way a show can stay with you for days, months or longer after you’ve seen it. She wants to provide that for her audience, to help shore them up during the difficult days of World War II.
But she’s facing a lot of obstacles.
One is the prima donna actress Celeste (a fiery Carol Halstead), who sees Maggie as her husband’s puppet and insists on doing everything her own way.
Another is Ellsworth Snow (V Craig Heidenreich), who holds the purse strings. When Maggie asks that the women get paid for acting, just as the men are, he brushes it away as “a frivolous question.”
Mr. Heidenreich plays him as a taciturn naysayer who does a slow burn internally when he’s bested by a woman, which is enjoyable to watch.
Another major problem for Maggie is getting talent.
She winds up with a ragtag group of unlikely suspects: June (Emma Badger), who is young and naïve and channeling her anxieties into supporting the war effort with crazed activity; Grace (Jackie Schram), a walking bundle of insecurity and self-doubt; and Winifred (Jan Neuberger), who’s married to Ellsworth and acted in school decades ago.
Shannon Harris, as Ida, the seamstress, and Kevin Loreque as Stuart, the stage manager, round out the cast of this smart, funny, offbeat show. Ida and Stuart are outsiders, even in a business that welcomes outsiders. Yet Maggie draws the circle wider and includes them in the family.
Director Eleanor Holdridge does some creative staging here, on a set (by Dennis C. Maulden) made to look like an old theater. Between scenes, props are moved around by stagehands dressed as moving men; on occasion, tiny sets are rolled in from the wings. The stage itself, as well as the characters, undergoes a transformation. (Though it’s distracting to see some of the stagehands moving about in the rear of the stage while some of the action was still going on.)
Costume designer Charlene Gross had great fun with dressing these characters: the overly dramatic Celeste makes a grand entrance, wearing red gloves, carrying a red purse, with a red feather in her hat and red detailing on her shoes. She also has a leopard skin pattern in the lining of her coat.
And Winifred is, for the most part, found in floral print dresses and pearl necklaces.
As an audience, we get to see behind the scenes: how a play comes together, how the actors, initially strangers to each other, grow to be one unit.
There is a great scene, well worth the price of admission alone, where they practice striding about like men and experiment with — shall we say — feeling the weight of manhood.
Ms. Schram, as the insecure Grace, is great fun to watch as she puts on other personas and transforms.
But it is Ms. Neuberger who steals the show as the ditzy and thoroughly loopy Winifred. Maggie casts her purely as a means of bribing Winfred’s husband to loosen the purse strings and get funding but winds up getting much more than she’d literally bargained for.
You don’t have to know Shakespeare to enjoy “Into the Breeches!,” though it certainly enhances the experience.
Just come ready to laugh, and you won’t be disappointed.
For me, “Into the Breeches!” definitely has the Linger Effect. ¦
In the KNOW
“Into the Breeches!”
» When: Through March 5
» Where: Historic Arcade Theatre on
Bay Street, between Jackson and
Hendry, in downtown Fort Myers
» Cost: Tickets start at $55
» Information: 239-332-4488