When down on his luck actor Leo reads about the projected inheritance of missing relatives Max and Steve, he thinks he’s hatched the perfect plan to save his and his acting partner Jack’s career. Little does he know the lengths this job will push their talent as they attempt to trick Great Aunt Florence and win the hands of some beautiful young ladies, as well. Like any Shakespearean farce, Leading Ladies is a classic tale of missing relatives, large inheritances, and sneaky disguises that ends neatly with love and justice.
In a rural mansion in Pennsylvania, the unsuspecting Snider family don’t know what they have coming when Leo (Peter Gizariotis) and Jack (Ben Freeman) appear disguised as their beloved missing cousins Max and Steve. Meg (Nicole Harwood) is planning her wedding to the greedy minister Duncan (Steve Rowe) who is waiting for Doc (Dave Went) to finally correctly pronounce Florence (Jennifer Leslie) dead so he can make use of her millions of dollars. The plots are convoluted, choked up with each character’s conflicting motives and mistakes as they all scramble get their hands on the inheritances and marriages they feel entitled to.
Ken Ludwig’s script is heavily plot-driven with the comedy largely arising out of awkward situations and miscommunications between characters willing to risk everything for their preferred outcome. This particular farce is predicated on an assumed inherent humour found in men dressing like women, an attitude that leans a bit too closely towards sexism and transphobia. From this basis, the punchlines of many of the jokes are comprised of Leo and Jack hoping to trick Meg and her friend Audrey (Turkan Koch) into trusting their female disguises so the men can take advantage and begin sexual and romantic relationships with these women, in that order specifically. While it’s a common trope in farce to include sexual innuendo and risqué humour, the starting point of the Leading Ladies plot and misogynistic characterisation of the male leads leaves a lot of ground for the rest of the characters to make up for.
That being said, the women of the cast should be commended for their excellent renditions of their cliched characters that were vibrant and light throughout. Meg is a conventional pretty girl character with vague aspirations that the men in her life dismiss but Harwood gives her a consistency and conviction that is ultimately charming. Audrey, the rollerskating foolish friend, is played well by Koch with a chipper perkiness and superb comic timing. The stand-out performance came from Leslie as Great Aunt Florence. As she swayed and screamed around the stage she demanded attention and didn’t waver in her smart acuity of character, even when lolling around in the background.
The lead duo were unbearably British with their self-interest and their plots in constant shambles. With Gizariotis playing up Leo’s wily ways and Freeman as the easily strong-armed straight man, the two pair well together especially when one-upping each other in continually ludicrous circumstances. In particular, Rowe’s extreme facial expressions and lumbering physicality heightened the bodily humour and disgust aspects of farce.
Stephen Snars’s direction of this production is well paced and picks up on frequent comic beats that build strong character roles even in such a plot-driven story. The overlapping storylines and dramatic tension are cleanly executed with attention paid equally to each character’s moments of personal success (or sometimes failure). The set design, also by Snars, impressively transports the theatre to a country mansion and the lighting design from Sean Churchward combined with playful scene transitions and special appearances from the stage crew added a welcome whimsy. Additional credit should go to Annette Snars for an enormous array of costumes to cover four weeks and three plays worth of characters that was carried off with ease.
As a subtle send-up of Shakespeare and the theatre community and a wild romp through family battle lines, Leading Ladies is strong production played with conviction to the genre and a commendable comic cast.
Leading Ladies is running at the Pavilion Theatre from May 31st – June 22