North Coast Rep’s ‘Into the Breeches’ a backstage comedy set during World War II
The play is about a mostly women theater company putting on Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV’ and ‘Henry V’ plays
During World War II, Americans on the homefront did their part to support the troops with a collective sense of can-do spirit.
So do the characters in “Into the Breeches,” George Brant’s 2018 backstage comedy that opens Saturday in its San Diego premiere at North Coast Repertory Theatre. The play is set in 1942 at an American playhouse where the longtime artistic director has gone overseas to fight. But rather than close the theater until the artistic director returns, his wife, Maggie, decides that carry on with his original plan to cast, direct and produce William Shakespeare’s male-centric “Henry” plays.
With most of the region’s men away in uniform, Maggie creatively casts several women in male roles, as well as the theater’s Black costume designer and gay male stage manager. She also wins over the theater’s reluctant board president and major donor by casting his untalented wife in a principal role.
Although “Into the Breeches” is a laugh-out-loud comedy, stage director Diana Van Fossen said it’s also about this transformative period of American history, when job opportunities suddenly opened for women, people of color and LGBTQ community members that were not available pre-war.
“Because the men were gone, the whole atmosphere changed. There was a whole different beat going on. It opened so many previously closed spaces and doors and windows and the women were just heady with it,” said Van Fossen, who is making her North Coast Rep directing debut with “Into the Breeches.” “I think it’s the headiness that’s so much fun. Just as the troops overseas are fighting for liberation, the play generates a giddy sense of liberation.”
Besides being a war story about liberation, “Into the Breeches” is also what Van Fossen calls a “love letter to the theater,” a community she has been a part of for most of her life.
At 18, Van Fossen and her grandmother — who taught drama at Georgetown University — traveled to England, where she fell in love with the nation’s theater traditions. After college, she moved to England, studied theater, performed in repertory and in national tours and became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. After her return to the U.S., she met her husband, British director Geoffrey Sherman, who ran several American regional theater companies, including the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Van Fossen has had her own prolific career, having acted in and directed plays, particularly Shakespeare’s works, all over the country. Sherman passed away in 2019 following a battle with cancer.
Van Fossen’s friendship with North Coast’s artistic director David Ellenstein goes back nearly 40 years. His late father, actor Robert Ellenstein, was mentored by Sherman; Van Fossen and David Ellenstein played a romantic couple in a Portland play in the 1990s; Sherman hired Ellenstein to direct plays at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival; and Ellenstein hired Sherman to direct plays at North Coast Rep. Van Fossen and Sherman’s daughter, actor Alice Sherman, has also appeared onstage at North Coast Rep in “Holmes and Watson” (2018) and “Amadeus” (2019).
Van Fossen said the lifelong experience of growing up in a theater family is good training for directing the “family” of actors who come together to perform Shakespeare in “Into the Breeches.”
“When you’re a theater family, it’s extraordinary,” she said. “You make deep relationships with people because you spend so much time together at rehearsal. This play takes the audience into the rehearsal room. It’s about all we learn in drama school, whether you’re just isolated or cocooned or collaborating all together. It gives us a life force.”
‘Into the Breeches’
When: Opens Saturday, Oct. 22 and runs through Nov. 23. 7 p.m. Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Phone: (858) 481-1055
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