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Leading ladies tackles humor, mistaken identity

Kent Peckenpaugh as Reverend Wooley, Zach Broyles as Leo/Maxine, and Melissa McAlerney as Meg.    - Photo courtesy of Whidbey Playhouse
Kent Peckenpaugh as Reverend Wooley, Zach Broyles as Leo/Maxine, and Melissa McAlerney as Meg.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Whidbey Playhouse

Along with his title as master sonnet writer, William Shakespeare is also known for the cross-dressing genre. Sometimes plays had men dressed as women, women dressed as men (secretly) and men dressed as women posing as men. It became pretty convoluted, but it also set the groundwork for classic, gender-bender comedies such as 1959’s “Some Like It Hot.”

Taking a little from column A, Shakespeare, and a little from column B, Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis, you get Ken Ludwig’s “Leading Ladies,” a farce involving two down-on-their-luck Shakespearean actors, pursuing some easy cash.

“The setting is in the 1950’s, Amish country,” director Judy Hendrix said.

Set in Ludwig’s own hometown of York, Penn., the story centers on English actors, Leo Clark and Jack Gable, whose fortunes declined to the point that their incomes come from performing a mash-up of Shakespearean scenes for drunken Elks club members.

But Clark and Gable soon learn that a wealthy York matriarch, Florence, played by Judy Crane, is searching for long-lost English relatives with whom she can share her estate. Trouble is, the relatives are nieces and the actors have to dress in drag to pull off the scheme.

The ploy is complicated by Meg, a third niece and heir from York who quickly becomes Leo/Maxine’s love interest. Meg’s stick-in-the-mud fiance Duncan, the greedy pastor, spends much of the play trying to uncover their disguise.

Often times with physical comedy, the tricky part is keeping up the energy level and balancing the performance to the same degree. With a nod to Hendrix, this eight-person cast successfully kept the action brewing, avoided the easy yuks and overlaid sarcasm and slapstick.

Thursday night’s sold-out crowd was in hysterics when Clark and Gable, played by Zach Broyles and Keith Worley, first tiptoed into Florence’s upscale living room in high heels, wearing cropped wigs and pink Shakespearean garb (Worley’s costume had butterfly wings).

“I loved trying on the dresses,” Worley said, outside the dressing room before the show.

Out of his six costume changes, four involved dressing up in frocks. Audrey, the affectionately dim roller-skating waitress is Gable’s love interest, and also his real-life fiance, Lisa Datin.

Broyles, a Coupeville actor returning to stage after a string of independent films, described his character Leo as spontaneous, romantic and border-line ADD. Both Broyles and Worley nailed a chirping female voice and the men’s hulking height make them a great physical choice for the role.

The shy and dutiful Meg is the play’s heart, played by Melissa McAlerney, and she dreams of a life outside of rural Pennsylvania.

“With a small cast, the characters are better developed,” Hendrix said. “So you feel like you know them by the end of the show.”

Thursday’s performance was “buyout” night for the Soroptimists International of Oak Harbor, a group working to improve the lives of women.

“The theatre will sell tickets to groups for maybe $5 and they’ll sell them for $15, to help raise funds. It’s always the night before the opening,” Hendrix said.

Sorotimist president Tamra Sipes said the royalties will go towards programs such as the “Tree of Hope” and women’s scholarships.

“Leading Ladies” will continue through Oct. 4 and the play is recommended for audiences 14 years of age and above.

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