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Stageloft Hits Comic Jackpot with 'Ladies'

By Paul Kolas TELEGRAM & GAZETTE REVIEWER

"Inarguably the funniest local theater production in recent memory, with Saturday evening's audience doing its best to catch its breath between waves of convulsive laughter."

WORCESTER — Men dressing as women is hardly a fresh concept for a comedy. The solid gold standard-bearers are Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in “Some Like It Hot,” and Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie.” To those formidable names, you can now add Jeremy Woloski and Steve Caputo, who are the stars of Stageloft Repertory Theater's spot-on rendering of Ken Ludwig's “Leading Ladies.”

It is inarguably the funniest local theater production in recent memory, with Saturday evening's audience doing its best to catch its breath between waves of convulsive laughter. It's farce of a very high order, sharply written and directed with admirable dexterity by Neal Martel, who continues to display his considerable talents as an actor's director.

“Leading Ladies” may not be Shakespeare in a literal sense, but it is about two down-on-their-luck Shakespearean actors, Leo Clark (Woloski) and Jack Gable (Caputo) — yep, Clark and Gable — floundering on the Moose Lodge circuit in 1950s Pennsylvania, hamming it up before one hostile audience after another.

Leo and Jack read in a newspaper that an old lady in the town of York has passed away, bequeathing her $3 million fortune to her niece, Meg (Rose Gage), and her two nephews, Max and Steve. The latter two moved away to England as children and can't be found, prompting the always broke and desperate Leo and Jack to pose as the nephews and claim their share of the inheritance. What a marvelous idea!

However, two things stand in their way: Max and Steve are actually nieces, Maxine and Stephanie, and the old lady, Florence (Susan Nest) isn't dead yet. Although Jack protests the idea of going drag, the boys break out the makeup, lipstick and dresses and proceed full speed ahead to convince everyone they are Maxine and Stephanie.

Although they fool Meg, and Meg's best friend and part-time aide to Florence Audrey (Ciel Blodgett), Meg's fiancé, Duncan Wooley (Jim Douglas), suspects they are frauds and goes about proving it.

There are other complications ready to trip up the road to wealth, including the fact that Stephanie was born “deaf and dumb,” and that Leo falls in love with Meg and Jack falls in love with Audrey.

You may correctly surmise the destination these silly people will eventually arrive at, but the journey is one funny ride.

Costume designer Christie Console has attired Woloski and Caputo with a gaudy assortment of wigs, dresses, and 3-D bust sizes that threaten to burst through the seams of those lovely outfits.

If the clothes make the man, they certainly make the woman here, bringing out the best of talent in both actors. They work together with terrific comic synchronization, an alpha-beta pairing that prances thorough Ludwig's clever dialogue, navigating nimbly between their true and disguised selves with hilarious hyperbole.

Woloski as Leo is a suave, polished, charming rake. As Maxine, he's an outlandish caricature of femininity, pining away for the beautiful, alluring Meg under that blond wig and rouge.

When Gage's Meg lies on the couch next to Woloski's Maxine, telling “her” that she loves to just take her clothes off and be naked, the look on Woloski's sexually frustrated face says it all. When Meg later tells the panicked Maxine that she loves “her,” it echoes the dilemma Dustin Hoffman encounters with Jessica Lange in “Tootsie:” that the object of desire is falling in love with the false representation of one's self. It's ironic and humorous.

Gage plays Meg with an exaggerated romanticism that perfectly embodies Meg's love of Shakespeare and growing attraction to Woloski's Leo. Caputo as Jack is an uptight Brit who hates the idea of masquerading as a woman, but as the awkward, endearing Stephanie, his invented persona allows him to express his feelings for Audrey (Blodgett is a bubbly, roller-skating delight in the role) by continuously hugging her under the pretence of nonverbal communication.

Of course the “deaf and dumb” charade can't last forever, and how that is dealt with is another cause for laughter.

Douglas plays Duncan with the righteous determination befitting a small-town minister.

Mark Bourdeau, as the inept Doc Meyers, has a very amusing encounter with the Stephanie version of Jack.

Peter Arsenault, as Doc's son Butch, matches his father for ineptitude with his awful acting in a production of “Twelfth Night” set up by Leo/Maxine and Meg.

Nest's Florence is a woman who knows more than she lets on. She has one of the best lines in a show that is full of them.

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