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Blokes in dresses 

Let the Little Theatre's Ladies lead you on

click to enlarge ONCE MORE INTO THE BREACH, DEAR FRIENDS :  Stuart Wenger is Leo Clark and Travis Nefores is Jack Gable, two second-rate Shakespearean actors who put their skills to better use as con men in Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SLO LITTLE THEATRE
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SLO LITTLE THEATRE
  • ONCE MORE INTO THE BREACH, DEAR FRIENDS : Stuart Wenger is Leo Clark and Travis Nefores is Jack Gable, two second-rate Shakespearean actors who put their skills to better use as con men in Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies.
Gender bending has long been a staple of British theater, so it’s only appropriate that when a pair of British actors waltzes into the central plot of an American play, they make a proper entrance in tulle and chiffon, r’s a-trilling, high heels a-clonking, and necklines daringly a-plunging, exposing tantalizing glimpses of chest hair.

But we first see Leading Ladies’ Leo and Jack (Stuart Wenger and Travis Nefores) as a pair of starving Shakespearean actors so desperate, they’re performing “Scenes from Shakespeare” before a crowd of jeering manly-men at the Moose Lodge in Shrewsbury, Penn. The performance is less than well received, despite the muddled beauty of lines like “a horse, a horse, my kingdom of a horse!” and “Alas, poor Yorick. To be or not to be.” (And despite Leo’s winning interpretation of Hamlet, dressed in a puffy-sleeved shirt and incongruous Scottish kilt—a mere precursor to the getups into which he’ll later stuff himself.)

Getting the boot from the Moose Lodge is the final straw for poor Leo and Jack, and it’s with heavy hearts that they pack up their costumes and haul their broke asses onto the next train out of town. But upon cracking open the day’s paper, they learn a wealthy old auntie in nearby York is about to kick the bucket. Her dying wish, the article reads, is to see her estranged nephews Max and Steve, who moved to England when they were children and from whom, despite all efforts, she has heard nothing since. Mrs. Snyder has an inheritance valued at $3 million. A daring new deception is conceived.

Unfortunately, upon arrival in York under the pretence of being Max and Steve, the would-be con men realize they have made a grave error: the missing relations aren’t nephews at all, but nieces Maxine and Stephanie. No matter, insists Leo, he and Jack have dresses aplenty. Winged ones! Shiny ones! Flowy ones! The plan will still work. It must work! In an effort to win over the dubious Jack, Leo asks rhetorically, “Who do you think played women in Shakespeare’s time?”

And so it is that a garish Leo/Maxine and sheepish Jack/Stephanie turn up like freshly delivered fluffy parcels on Auntie Florence’s doorstep, to be greeted by her last living heiress, Meg (Kayla Peracca). Wenger makes a rather mousy-looking girl. It’s remarkable to note how, when squished into a gown, the otherwise attractive Nefores suddenly resembles a pig in a wig.

Toward the end of the first act, Ken Ludwig’s play begins to gain serious momentum. While the first several scenes of the Little Theatre’s production are fine, if a bit dry, the play’s pulse quickens perceptibly as soon as the dresses go on.

On opening night, the actors began on a tentative note and grew, by degrees, more comfortable in their roles. Taking heart at positive reactions from the audience, the cast eventually gave themselves over to the mounting ridiculousness of Ludwig’s play. As “Maxine” and “Stephanie” arrive in Aunt Florence’s living room, the air is suddenly charged with a certain palpable anticipation; Jack and Leo are by turns giddy and terrified at the idea of pulling off their scam.

- I AM WOMAN, AND SO CAN YOU:  Leading Ladies, directed by Leticia Velez, opened at the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre on Oct. 8. The Little Theatre playhouse is at 888 Morro St. in downtown SLO. Leading Ladies runs weekends, Friday through Sunday, until Oct. 31. Tickets cost $22 (general) or $15 (student). For tickets and show times, call the Little Theatre box office at 786-2440. Box office hours are Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturday, from 2 to 4 p.m. For more information (or tickets) visit slolittletheatre.com. -
  • I AM WOMAN, AND SO CAN YOU: Leading Ladies, directed by Leticia Velez, opened at the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre on Oct. 8. The Little Theatre playhouse is at 888 Morro St. in downtown SLO. Leading Ladies runs weekends, Friday through Sunday, until Oct. 31. Tickets cost $22 (general) or $15 (student). For tickets and show times, call the Little Theatre box office at 786-2440. Box office hours are Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturday, from 2 to 4 p.m. For more information (or tickets) visit slolittletheatre.com.
There are complications along the way. Aunt Florence (Dottie Thompson), not exactly on death’s door as purported to be (prior confusion owing to her doctor’s hasty diagnosis), turns out to be a demanding and snarky old darling. Thompson’s Florence has that certain knack for innocently calling bullshit, a gift generally reserved for the very old and the very young.

Things get messier when Leo starts to fall in love with heiress Meg, appearing as himself to woo her, and later turning up as  “Maxine” to gossip about it.

Meg, however, is engaged to Rev. Duncan Wooley (John Geever), a fussy older man with a distrust for theater folk—and for “Maxine” and “Stephanie.” The reverend’s character, plucked right from the pulpit of small-town America’s churches, provides plenty of chances for poking fun at actors, religion, and, well, fussy older men.

Peracca, like Geever, stands out in this production as startlingly real. There are actors who are quite clearly and obviously honing The Craft, and there are those like Peracca, who wear their characters more subtly. She has a naturalness as the eye-rolling, capricious, stubborn Meg.

Leo and Jack’s English accents show up fashionably late to the party, making their first real entrances in the duo’s second scene together—though the two carry on bravely until they arrive. As Leo, on the train to York, learns of the missing heirs’ common nationality, he looks up from his newspaper and exclaims, “We’re English! We even have English accents!” Yes, by the end of the play, they did seem to have worked the accents out.

In fact, Wenger and Nefores seem to get progressively more British as the play unfolds, aided perhaps by all the cross-dressing (think Benny Hill, or Little Britain). Something about prancing about in heels, clutching a dainty purse, seems to make that accent trill off the tongue in a shrill falsetto.

The plot of Leading Ladies is not entirely Ludwig’s own; it’s improbable plot twists are clearly a tribute to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and indebted rather unapologetically to Some Like it Hot. But Ludwig’s clever wordplay and pacing make this farce seem ever new. Sharp delivery on the part of Peracca and Wenger make the experience a riot. And barbed one-liners fly out of a deceptively benign script, luring the audience to a giggly, silly place and trapping them there for the remainder of the show.

Arts Editor Anna Weltner trills her r’s, but only while typing. Contact herrrr at aweltner@n

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