Leading Ladies Resized 138.JPG
Jane Connell and Chris Duva in Leading Ladies, The Alley Theatre; PC: T. Charles Erickson

"Ladies" Lobs First-Rate Laughs

Have a ball with 2 cross-dressing cons
By Michael L. Greenwald

The San Diego Union-Tribune
September 11, 2006

'Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness,” laments Viola, Shakespeare's plucky cross-dressing heroine in “Twelfth Night,” the much-loved comedy that inspires Ken Ludwig's “Leading Ladies.”

For Ludwig, disguise is the wellspring of gut-busting laughter, as evidenced by the opening of the North Coast Repertory Theatre's 25th season.

The North Coast Rep is producing the West Coast premiere of Ludwig's laugh-a-second (yes, they do come that fast) farce, which will surely join “Charley's Aunt” and other drag fests in the repertories of regional and community theaters – even Shakespeare festivals – for decades to come.

But don't wait; this Solana Beach production is first-rate by every standard.

Ludwig hardly breaks new comedic ground with “Leading Ladies.” His confection is little more than a clever homage to just about every gag known to theater folk since Aristophanes. You will spot bits from Shakespeare, Sheridan, Billy Wilder and other masters of comedy.

Ludwig's gift? He takes the tried-and-true and makes it seem new. Well, not entirely new, as some detractors have noted, but the super-sized laughs still abound. Only the terminally dour will fail to be seduced by the “Ladies” mayhem, however predictable.

The play may be the thing, but it's the players who make this thing soar. “Actors are liars; they lie for a living,” says the pompous minister who tries to undermine the hilarity.

The eight Rep actors in this splendid ensemble of liars are terrific at making us believe the script's many improbabilities, the most notable of which is that two tacky Shakespeareans playing the Moose Lodge circuit pass themselves off as women to con a dowager out of her fortune.

But there's little concern for a logical plot, in-depth characterization and profundity – especially profundity – in this celebration of clowning.

And, oh, what clowns, beginning with Leo Clark (Phil Johnson, the fast-thinking little man) and Jack Gable (Matt Thompson, the panicky hunk). Clark and Gable (get it?) are the guys in frilly frocks wittily designed by Jeanne Reith, none funnier than the Cleopatra and Titania getups that they pluck from a wardrobe for their debut as “women.”
Equity actors Johnson and Thompson milk and mug their way through Ludwig's script, starting with a riff on the Reduced Shakespeare Company's famous half-hour “Complete Works of William Shakespeare”; they also wink at the Old Globe's current “Titus Andronicus.”

If they and the other jesters occasionally push the comedic envelope too far, all is forgiven, because their romp scores far more palpable hits than misses. Johnson hilariously plays both his yin and his yang in the rollicking finale, while the rubber-faced Thompson manages to turn the receipt of a simple telegram into a bawdy tour de force with the help of John Herzog's no less funny straight clergyman.

Johnson and Thompson are not the show's only leading ladies. Director John Seibert, who orchestrates the nonsense sensibly, returns to the Mutt and Jeff motif (itself a Shakespearean gambit) in the casting of the female leads.

A tiny, wide-eyed brunette, Jeannine Marquie, plays Meg, the small-town gal whose good looks and gullibility provide the obligatory romance. Although Ludwig assigns her the script's falsest note, a contrived confession about her love life that is very un-1950s, Marquie dominates each of the many scenes in which she appears with a Loretta Young perkiness that is spot-on in the '50s milieu.

Statuesque and very blond in both coloring and ditziness, Brenda Hogan plays Audrey, a roller-skating carhop on a train (don't ask!), who provides the goofy exposition that sets Leo's plan in motion.

The train scene genuflects to the famous Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe sequence in “Some Like It Hot,” the quintessential guys-in-drag film.

Hogan's funniest moment, however, occurs during a rehearsal for “Twelfth Night” as she, determined to play a man, spikes her wimpy Shakespearean hero with a huge dose of Brando.

Max Macke plays Meg's intended, a dolt who manages to drown Shakespeare in the mighty Mississippi. (Puh-lease don't ask; just laugh.)

The rich old dame who refuses to die (crusty Sally Stockton) continually confounds a flaky physician who spends the night chewing up the Rep's scenery. That's OK, because Doc is played by Marty Burnett, the Rep's longtime scenic designer, who creates a house that exists only in '50s sitcoms, thereby making Ludwig's corny laugh lines palatable. Burnett's daffy scene changes are as funny as any scripted passage.

The best writing is obviously Shakespeare's, and Ludwig uses it to superb comic advantage beyond the play-within-the-play, hilariously played as the show's curtain call.

“Leading Ladies” asks only that you willingly check your disbelief at the door. Better yet, leave it in the car, as the North Coast Rep needs its intimate space for torrents of laughter.

Michael L. Greenwald is a professor of theater at Texas A&M University and a freelance critic.


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