Asolo Stumbles Getting "Into the Breeches"

Arts & Culture

BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY FRESHLY SQUEEZED CONTENT EVERY MORNING THURSDAY FEB 27, 2020

The time: 1942. The place: Sarasota.

World War II rages through Europe and the Pacific, and somewhere offstage the men of this small town wage bloody war on the Axis powers. Closer to home, at the Oberon Theater, an aspiring director forever living in her partner’s shadow tries to wrangle up the cast and the cash to put on her own productions of Shakespeare’s Henry IV (parts one and two) and Henry V, filling the roles with all women and keeping the theater open while the men are away. Teaming up with her trusty crew and an aging star with thin skin and delusions of grandeur, the stage is set for this latest comedy from playwright George Brant.

And what a lovely stage it is—the design crews at Asolo never disappoint. From my vantage, the proscenium of the Oberon towers overhead with the majesty of a storied playhouse. Under its vaulted arch, everything wonderfully aged and placed evokes an era long past, and a spiral staircase and elevated ledge allow for some welcome vertical movement, as characters scamper up and down, stroll above the scene or depend from the banister like a dramatic rhesus monkey.

The show puts its best foot forward in those moments of broad physical comedy, when its cast gets to revel in the absurd and throw their bodies fully into the joke, whether it be the over-the-top antics of the always-funny Tina Stafford or the entire cast lumbering about the stage in an attempt to understand the testicular dynamics involved in everyday male ambulation. Much like his performance in Murder on the Orient Express, Matt DeCaro plays his part with a comfortable charisma that elevates a rather predictable character into something familiar but fun, but it is Peggy Roeder who steals the show as the earnest but oblivious Winifred Snow. Even sitting silent as a piece of prop furniture, while other characters battle it out, Roeder’s performance becomes a comedic highlight, which is a testament to both the actor and director Laura Kepley. 

However, not every character enjoys the same highs. Many of the characters remain rather one-note, and, as the grounded Abbott to the rest of the cast’s Costello, lead Madeleine Maby just isn’t given much to do beyond alternating between fretful and forceful, depending on the needs of the moment. And while all of these moments move along in a coherent and logical manner, it does seem to sort of just move along. Without clearly defined and compelling stakes or any sense of a ticking clock or looming consequence, the show lacks a necessary narrative drive. 

In a similar vein, social commentary remains rather on-the-nose and shallow in its exploration, which is more likely to appease the audience than challenge or enlighten it. We’re happy to see a woman of color realize her dream of appearing onstage, but the only real obstacle presented by the play is a moment’s hesitation from the director, which passes nearly a quickly as it appears, reducing a historic fight to a footnote and an emotional moment of triumph to a box to be checked. The idea of being openly gay in 1942 receives slightly more nuanced treatment, but still avoids treading into real substance or conflict.

Of course, perhaps this is unfair to the intent of Into the Breeches, which would rather be taken as a fun romp through theater-centric in-jokes and duel-of-the-sexes comedy, but the front-and-center inclusion of those other aspects speaks otherwise.

Unfortunately, something falls short with Into the Breeches, which ultimately amounts to less than the sum of its parts. All of the pieces are there in the premise and the characters for something emotionally dynamic and delightful, but the play in its current form does not quite delve deep enough to realize those potentials or satisfy those expectations. There’s a lot of promise in there, and something leaner and punchier mired in the fluff.

Matt DeCaro, Madeleine Maby and Peggy Roeder in Asolo Rep's

Asolo Rep season and tickets.

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