Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Into The Breeches
Nancy Bell directs this great new play at the Grandel Theatre as part of the "In The Works" series at Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis. And through sheer character development, worked-up by first-rate actresses, both tragedy and comedy glide gently to completion. Michelle Hand plays Maggie, wife of an enlisted man who served as the director of the (mythical) Oberon Theatre, set here before the war. There are lots of St. Louis references by and for St. Louisans. In fact, it almost seems like a lot of bending-over-backwards for a flattering sense of place. This is one of only two small complaints I had about this otherwise heartwarming new show.
On the crowded "plus side" of the ledger, there seems to be an endless hall of mirrors inside Ms. Hand's soul, and one easily gets lost in Maggie's fish-out-of-water struggle. It's 76 years ago, and she steps up to direct Shakespeare's "Henry Cycle" on behalf of her absent soldier husband, for a three-hour version of the War of the Roses. But there are no men available to cast. She proposes a solution in a brainstorming moment with Ida, the company's costumer, played by the noble but housewifey Jacqueline Thompson. Ida actually has a plausibly great local backstory for a theater person, coming from The Ville neighborhood, a small area that was home to surprisingly big talents including Josephine Baker, Chuck Berry, Grace Bumbry, Arthur Ashe, Sonny Liston, and more. (Most white characters in Into The Breeches are assigned more generic neighborhoods for 1942, like Carondelet or Dogtown.)
Also on stage for this initial discussion, as the unlikely voice of reason, is the company diva. And while any of the talented women in this cast could work themselves up to playing a diva on stage, the one who actually has the full credentials to do it is Kari Ely. And she fills the role as Celeste. Remember, it's 1942, and St. Louis did not have a dozen serious, robust theater companies back then. So Celeste gets all the leading lady roles at the Oberon Theatre, including Juliet, even when she's older than Juliet's Nurse. Ms. Ely is languid, and large of gesture and spirit, and marches in spiritual lockstep with Vera Charles, Ursula Mossbank, Helen Sinclair, and Norma Desmond.
So then Maggie proposes the distaff Falstaff and the rest to the Oberon's producer, played by a delightfully retrograde Gary Wayne Barker. As Ellsworth, he effortlessly hits every single note in presenting the world of wealth and privilege in an era before any kind of civil rights. In fact, he seems to exist half the time in a country club setting, at golf or tennis. But gradually, in his first scene, you will note the vacuously smiling wife to his right: the seemingly squandered actress Katy Keating. In the past, we've seen her as a wildly hormonal lesbian high school student, a cold Prussian narrator of bizarre fairy tales, and more. But here she is, smug as a Christmas goose, doing nothing but smiling in her powder blue ensemble (from Scruggs, Vandervoort and Barney, no doubt).
Until, of course, she gets cast in the play. Ms. Keating's Winnifred is joined by other military wives, June (pixilated beauty Mary McNulty) and Grace (heartbreaking Laura Resinger). All of them embark on an exploration of self and Shakespeare and the world, and can never go back to what they were before.
Then there's Ben Nordstrom, as the one draft-age male in the show, the stage manager, disqualified from the military as "a swish." Mr. Nordstrom is a buoyant presenceyou should have seen him as J. Pierrepont Finch in 2014, or as the one person on stage who "got" the Breughelian nonsense of Big River in 2010. And here he tells convincingly of being humiliated by the draft board. But the mad gay struggle to get back into the world (in defiance of it) hadn't quite germinated on opening night. It's impossible to say anything bad about Mr. Nordstrom, and maybe that's the problem right there. I'm fairly certain the Midwest didn't use its Bible Belt to whip him growing up, to turn him into a monster. It's probably unreasonable to expect he could just whip that card out of his sleeve as a result. And maybe we don't need to look down into that crevasse any further. Plus, times have changed (and this is odd, since the play is from this year) and we don't automatically laugh when a man sweeps on stage in a big ballroom gown. Not in the larger cities, anyway. Once those referenced moments of historical pathos are dispatched, he's perfectly fine. But it bears mentioning that the theater is entering a time when emotionally crippled people seem to be disappearing. (Ms. Thompson does very nicely with her own character's civil rights struggle in the playit's different for Ida, with a large community of support, I suppose.)
Anyway, it's a lovely show, and anytime someone can make Shakespeare fully relevant, and poignant, and funny to modern audiences, you just have to take your hat off to them.
Into the Breeches, through November 18, 2018, at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square (across from Powell Symphony Hall), St. Louis MO. For more information on Shakespeare Festival St. Louis' "In The Works" series, including the upcoming A Most Outrageous Fit of Madness and A Thousand Natural Shocks, visit www.sfstl.com.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association