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Review: ‘Ladies’ a hoot at DHT
REVIEW BY RUTH BINGHAM / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Those who choose their theater tickets based on whether the title sounds familiar should still go see “Leading Ladies,” not only because everyone who has heard of it will be there but because the production by Diamond Head Theatre is a hoot.
“Leading Ladies” is relatively new — it premiered in 2004 — and was written by Ken Ludwig, very likely America’s leading comic playwright, with hits that include “Lend Me a Tenor,” “Midsummer/Jersey,” and “Crazy For You.”
Ludwig’s works are frequently based on Shakespeare: “Leading Ladies” is a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” in much the same way that “West Side Story” was a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet.”
“Leading Ladies” is also a farce — but then, so was “Twelfth Night” — and that is very much the point: What is high or low art? Authentic or pretense? Serious or silly?
The challenge of farce is finding the right balance between the “what” and the “how” — played too broadly, it devolves into slapstick; too straight, and it just seems vapid. That balance varies from audience to audience, and success depends on the actors’ skills to gauge the audience and adapt.
DHT’s production hits the nail on the head.
DHT’s directors are also its leads: Paul T. Mitri as Leo Clark and Rob Duval as Jack Gable (Clark Gable, got it?), struggling Shakespearean actors — British, of course — bringing “culture” to rinky-dink towns in rural America, more specifically to York, Pennsylvania (Ludwig’s birthplace). The number of sly references in this work is too high to count.
Mitri and Duval are stellar: As directors, they have crafted a beautifully focused production that lets nothing extraneous intrude. As actors, they play their parts to hilarious effect and with great comic timing. Best of all, their crisp delivery makes it possible for the audience to catch every word — or at least every one not drowned out by laughter.
With her lively stage presence, Tricia Marciel (Meg) is a pretty, sweet, petite match for Leo, and Leiney Rigg (Audrey) becomes a long-legged, endearingly ditzy blonde for Jack. Matthew Kelty delivers a wonderful doofus as the up-tight, self-centered, hypocritical yet self-righteous priest, rubbing his forehead in an attempt to control and “repackage” his baser instincts.
As the small-town, low-brow American doctor, Walter Eccles balances his character nicely between brusque yet kind-hearted, crass yet sympathetic. Both Florence and Butch are ‘prop’ roles for expedience’s sake, ably delivered by Ann Brandman and Seth Lilley, respectively.
Streamlined sets (Willie Sabel) and lighting (Dawn Oshima) set the tone and provide focus, while costumes (Evelyn Leung and Karen Wolfe) and makeup ( Friston S. Ho’okano) heighten the comedy. Especially noteworthy is the clean sound design (Mikel J. Humerickhouse) that showcased the all-important dialogue.
“Leading Ladies” begins with a conventional scene about a mismatched couple, but the real conflict arises in the next scene, played before the curtain: an intentionally bad mish-mash of Shakespeare meant to entertain lodge members, who quite frankly would prefer to see a stripper. That conflict culminates in a two-minute summary of “Twelfth Night” that reveals the connections between Shakespeare’s and Ludwig’s plays.
A farce can be taken at face value, enjoyed for the gags, the mistaken identities, the hilarity — but done well, it also comments on life while gently revealing our foibles. “Leading Ladies” is perfect fare for all ages: you can laugh at the antics and head home, or spend the evening mulling over the meaning of life.
Teachers should note that Ludwig has written a book about teaching Shakespeare to children that is due out this year, and it is hard to imagine a more enjoyable way to study Shakespeare than this play. You don’t have to know Shakespeare to enjoy “Leading Ladies,” any more than you have to be a fool to live life, but it helps.
In short, DHT’s “Leading Ladies” is a high-energy romp with great advice: let go of up-tight values, take a chance on being a fool, and embrace life! It is certainly what DHT, Mitri, and Duval have done.