We're never too sophisticated to giggle at men in skirts
Special to Go Triad
Published June 7, 2007
GREENSBORO — Here's your trivia fact for today: In theater, the traditional term for dressing in drag used to be the French word "travesti" ("cross-dressed"); that's where we got the word "travesty" meaning something that treats a serious subject in frivolous fashion.
While female characters primarily cross-dress because of tragedy or hardship — think Viola in "Twelfth Night," who "becomes" the brother she thinks has drowned — the sight of a man in a dress has tickled an audience's fancy from Ben Jonson's "Epicoene" and Brandon Thomas's "Charley's Aunt" through Monty Python and "Bosom Buddies."
More recently, playwright Ken Ludwig ("Lend Me a Tenor") used the convention in 2004's "Leading Ladies," opening at the Broach Theatre next week.
"I guess it's the absurdity of seeing a man in a skirt trying to navigate in heels that audiences love," says Broach co-founder Hall Parrish , who's directing the farce. "You also laugh at the idea that these other characters would really believe the men are women."
"Leading Ladies" is about Leo and Jack, two British actors whose careers are so far on the skids that they're performing "Scenes from Shakespeare" on the Moose Lodge circuit in Pennsylvania's Amish country. They think their luck might change, however, when they hear about Florence, an old lady in a nearby town who is about to die and leave a considerable legacy to her nephews from England. Leo convinces Jack that they should impersonate the heirs.
Their foolproof plan hits a snag, though, when they arrive on the scene and realize the woman's long-lost relatives are nieces and not nephews.
Then it hits another obstacle when Leo falls in love with Meg, who's engaged to a minister with plans for Florence's money, while Jack crushes on Audrey, a ditz y blonde involved with the son of Florence's doddering doctor.
The ensuing shenanigans and problematic courtships naturally force the actors to hop back and forth between Jack and Leo and "Maxine and Stephanie." The Houston Press, covering the world premiere, promised, "It will make sophisticated and reasonable men and women of the 21st century cackle till their faces hurt."
Harvard Law-educated playwright Ludwig specializes in this type of nostalgic comedy: "Leading Ladies" is set in 1958, around the same time as "Moon Over Buffalo; " his other best known works — "Lend Me a Tenor," "Crazy for You" and "Shakespeare in Hollywood" — all take place in the thirties.
"They take place in a time that was a little more innocent," Parrish says, "with characters who aren't quite as jaded."
The characters in the Broach production of "Leading Ladies" are played by what Parrish calls "the Broach all-stars," familiar faces with dozens of Broach shows among their credits. Philip Powell and Derek Gagnier play Leo and Jack, Betsy Brown is Florence, Heather Houglan-McGinnis and Sheila Kelly-Hillenbran are Meg and Audrey, Matt Giehl is Meg's fiancé, and Stephen Gee and Broach newcomer Brian Mullins are the doctor and his son.
"One of the advantages of working with such dear, talented people is that we all know how the other works, and we don't have to worry about egos," Parrish says.
That's a good thing because as any actor can tell you, farce is among the hardest types of shows to pull off successfully. If the chaos doesn't run smoothly, so to speak, all the audience sees are characters bumping into each other or stepping on each other's lines.
"The director has to know what's funny and why," Parrish says. "But it can take the cast a long time to feel comfortable with the timing and the ins and outs of the rhythm. Everything has to be carefully choreographed; otherwise, it just looks messy."
He also draws comparisons between "Leading Ladies" and another famous cross-dressing story set in the fifties, the Tony Curtis-Jack Lemmon-Marilyn Monroe classic "Some Like It Hot."
"Even if you haven't seen that movie or seen it in years, it's there in your consciousness," he says. "This is that same type of very funny, classy, stylish farce. It's perfect for summer."