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THEATER REVIEW: Moonlight's “Leading Ladies” not what they seem

Actors are such easy targets for comedy. Here are people who lie for a living and then ask you to love them.

Playwright Ken Ludwig (whose “Moon Over Buffalo” and “Lend Me A Tenor” have been seen locally) picks on his favorite targets again – this time a couple of down-on-their-luck Shakespearean thesps – and puts them in dresses in his 2004 farce “Leading Ladies.”

“Leading Ladies,” a sort of “Some Like It Hot” meets “Twelfth Night,” plays through Feb. 3 at Moonlight Stage Productions’ Avo Playhouse, directed by Christopher Williams.

The actors in question are Englishmen Leo Clark (Paul Morgavo) and Jack Gable (Eric Hellmers), reduced to playing “Scenes from Shakespeare” on the Moose Lodge circuit in Pennsylvania – to hostile audiences.

Why not a full production? “We have seven costumes,” says Leo. “We can do ‘Much Ado About Hamlet’ or ‘One Gentleman Of Verona.’”

On the train, Leo reads of a dying rich woman named Florence (Dagmar Krause Fields) who wants to see her long lost grandchildren Max and Steve before she kicks.

The plot is set when Audrey (Noelle Marion), a pretty and lithe young thing on roller skates, rolls into the car and reveals that she is from York and knows the grande dame in question. Leo pumps her for details and we're on our way.

“Oh, by the way,” Audrey notes, “Steve is deaf and dumb.” And oh, yes, Max and Steve are girls: Maxine and Stephanie. So Leo and Jack don a pair of their Shakespearean frocks and head for York.

Of course, when they get there they find the moneybags still alive and in no mood to die. They also find Florence’s pretty, bright young niece Meg (Kristin Woodburn) engaged to minister and insufferable bore Duncan Wooley (Taylor Bassett). Duncan is intent on thwarting any threat to Meg’s claim to the whole inheritance.

Along for the ride (and to complicate the inevitable romantic tangles more) is Doc Myers (Thom Vegh), Florence’s blunt (not to mention inept) doctor, who advises son Butch (Spencer Rodman) to marry rich.

We’re in for a quick-change cross-dressing marathon with the subtlety of a Mack truck and jokes older than dirt (“I enjoyed your sermon on Sunday. Best sleep I've had in weeks”).

Farce is a tricky commodity: it’s not to be taken seriously, but still must at least seem based in reality if it is to work. Most elements of this production pass muster, but Marion has apparently been coached to play Audrey at such extreme level as to push the audience out of the story rather than pulling them in.

Morgavo and Hellmers suffer no such fate: their original situation and personae Clark and Gable (get it?) are utterly believable, so that it’s easy to go along with the absurdity of them as pretend women.

Woodburn is a find as Meg, who can play comedy and Shakespeare with seemingly equal ease.

Bassett’s Wooley is properly tiresome and annoying, and Krause’s Florence is perfect – irascible, haughty and hilarious.

Vegh adds giggles as the incompetent Doc Myers, and Rodman amuses as his dense son Butch.

N. Dixon Fish’s set is ideal for farce, with a long staircase and lots of doors. Chris Luessmann’s sound, Paul A. Canaletti Jr.’s lighting and the costumes by Roslyn Lehman and Renetta Lloyd add atmosphere and hilarity to the silly goings-on.

“Some Like It Hot” did it better. So, in fact, did Ludwig in “Lend Me a Tenor.” But while “Leading Ladies” is like an extended sitcom, it offers a pleasant enough evening in the theater.

The details

“Leading Ladies” plays through Feb. 2 at the Avo Playhouse, 300 Main St., Vista.

Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.

For tickets: (760) 724-2110 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.