Playwright's 'Ladies' calls close to home
By Brianna Horan
For the Tribune-Review
Thursday, July 19, 2007
The mad-cap mishaps and susceptible situations that unfold in "Leading Ladies" are a signature of playwright Ken Ludwig's plays -- and they aren't so far-removed from his life.
"Being in the theater is an odd life, let alone writing for the theater," Ludwig says, by phone from his Washington, D.C. home. "Everyone in my past had what we think of as 'normal' lives. They would get dressed for the day and go to their offices or practices. When you're in theater, you live sort of a zany life."
Mountain Playhouse has staged productions of two of Ludwig's other comedies -- "Lend Me a Tenor" and "Moon Over Buffalo." The playwright says "Leading Ladies," which premiered in the fall of 2004 and opens at Mountain Playhouse on Tuesday, fits into sequence with these pieces. They are inspired by what Ludwig calls "the great tradition of comedy." He traces this thread of high comedy back to William Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Twelfth Night," and says it weaves in and out of history into the early 1900s.
For "Leading Ladies," Ludwig went to 1958 and made his setting York, Pa., where he was "born and bred."
"I think I was very influenced in growing up in a small town," he says, "and it's sort of nice, having natural folk dealing with extraordinary circumstances, I always liked that theme."
He has noticed that his own comedies are "subconsciously" set in a more nostalgic period.
"I look back on a gentler, happier time," says Ludwig, whose plays have won several Tony Awards, among numerous other awards. "I find the '30s, '40s and '50s were more conducive to the kind of comedy I write."
Ludwig's inspiration for "Leading Ladies," came from Mark Twain's descriptions of royal con artists' schemes to weasel a dead man's fortune away from his sons.
"I had just been re-reading "(The Adventures of) Huckleberry Finn" for the umpteenth time," Ludwig says. "I always loved the passages about the duke and the king. ... I thought, 'What a fun story, what a fun basis for a play.' "
In his version, the swindlers are two English Shakespearean actors, Jack and Leo, whose misfortune finds them playing scenes from the Bard on the Moose Lodge circuit in Pennsylvania Amish country. When a dying old woman decides to leave her fortune to her long-lost English relatives, the pair see quick money. There's just one glitch -- the inheritance is meant for the old woman's nieces, not her nephews, so the men spend much of their time in dresses.
"It's just part of the joy we get out of our sexuality," Ludwig says of the classic theatrical device of cross-dressing. "There's a bit of the female in all men and a bit of the male in all females, it's just how we're made. To see it emerge full blown like that can be very funny and very joyous."
But finding a dress to fit his frame is no laughing matter for actor Wayne Schroder, who plays Leo.
"I'm about 6 feet, 3 inches, 215 pounds. That's not exactly off the rack," he says.
Neil A. Casey, who plays Jack, Schroder's partner in cross-dressing crime, has tried slipping on some of the costumes from the Playhouse's current production of "42nd Street" to get into character, but the dresses' zippers won't quite zip all the way up his 5-foot 9-inch frame.
Once fully enclosed In their specially-tailored gowns, the two leading "ladies" and six other cast members will sing, dance and even sword fight on the Mountain Playhouse stage.
The production's director, Tom Schaller, knew "Leading Ladies" would be a good fit for the theater the first time he read it.
"The characters represented in it, I know that the actors that we have in the company could fit into those roles very well, and they could bring a lot to the show as well," says Schaller, who has worked at the Mountain Playhouse for 13 seasons. "(The actors) need to have a wide intellect of understanding the material."