'Leading Ladies' A Comedic Gender-Bender

If there’s nothing like a good laugh to get rid of the post-holiday blues, a look at the current South Bend Civic Theatre production of “Leading Ladies” is just what the doctor ordered.

From the prolific pen of American farce-master Ken Ludwig (“Lend Me A Tenor,” “Moon Over Buffalo,” et al), the tale of two down-and-out English Shakespearean actors who find their latest get-rich-quick scheme has little to do with the Bard of Avon, begins with a few snickers and ends with literally non-stop guffaws.

Yep. Guffaws. It’s that type of comedy.

No sly satirical quips here. Instead, broad obvious puns, a good deal of slapstick and a dive into the basic laugh-getter of all farces: Guys in drag and gals who can’t  recognize 5 o’clock shadow when they’re staring it in the face — lierally!

Leading Ladies  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreBill Svelmoe and Zach Gassman play Leo Clark and Jack Gable (get it??), two actors reduced to performing “Scenes from Shakespeare” on the Moose Lodge circuit in Pennsylvania.  On the train in search of their next gig, they read an article detailing an elderly widow’s dying search for two long-lost relatives, Steve and Max, who she hasn’t seen since infancy.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention and impersonating the now-adult relatives seems an easy answer. Only one catch: nephews Steve and Max are nieces Stephanie and Maxine. With the aid of theatrical garb, the guys become girls and the con is on.

Anyone who thinks there will be smooth sailing from wig on to wig off obviously has never seen a farce —especially a Ludwig farce! Offering stumbling blocks are Florence (Martha Branson-Banks), the ailing senior who gets a new lease on life; another niece Meg (Christy Burgess), a major fan of the Bard; her too-stuffy-to-be-good fiancé Rev. Duncan (Matt Deitchley); Doc (Casey St. Aubin), who can’t wait to sign the death certificate; his son Butch (Jared Windhauser); and Audrey (Nora Ryan Taylor), a friend of Meg’s serving as Florence’s part-time aide.

Leading Ladies  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreBefore the curtain falls on the proper (?) pairings, everything that can go wrong definitely does and watching the “girls” scramble to maintain their false identities while securing romantic attachments as themselves is familiar farce fodder and certainly one the audience enjoys.

This production moves along snappily under the direction of Leigh Taylor. She has assembled a very solid cast lead by the Ace of Farce, Svelmoe, who should be at the top of every director’s list for casting in this wacky genre. His final “on-again,off-again” is worth the price of admission. Gassman works hard — and successfully — to form the necessary doubles team and the sight of this tall gentleman in a mile-high wig and red patent stilettoes is hilarious, even without dialogue.

The on-again, off-again guys have two very sharp ladies with which to share the stage. Burgess and Taylor hold their own in every situation, with special applause for the latter who does it all — on roller skates.

Deitchley’s Snively Whiplash-like characterization seems a bit much at first but explodes perfectly as the denoument approaches. Branson-Banks is the perfect grandma-who-won’t-die. St. Aubin may be the last physician who makes house calls but really too young for the role. Windhauser lives up to his character’s name.

Set designer David Chudzynski’s scenic triptych (RR car right, two-story home center, Moose Lodge left) works well as the action shifts easily from one locale to another. The furnishings, however, are spare and rather worn for a wealthy home. On opening night, the area rug slipped its tape, a possible problem solved at least temporarily by a quick thinking actor. Any minor glitches were forgotten in Ludwig’s signature Mega-Mix, when the cast, no doubt already winded from its fast-paced 2 ½ hour romp, revisited the entire scenario — in case anyone had forgotten!

NOTE: Remember that ALL shows on the SBCT 2014 season begin at 7:30 pm. with matinees at 2 p.m. One half hour earlier than in previous years. Don’t get caught with your stub down!!

LEADING LADIES plays at 7:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. through Feb. 2 in the Wilson Mainstage Theatre at 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For reservations, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org

Love Found And Lost In 'Almost, Maine'

Don’t bother looking.

You won’t find Almost, ME in Rand McNally or on Google Maps, but it’s definitely there — almost in the U.S., almost in Canada and unfortunately uncharted due to its residents’  lack of organization.

The stories of 18 inhabitants are told (and lovingly intertwined) in the Elkhart Civic Theatre production of John Coriani’s romantic comedy which opened Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House.

Almost, Maine  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol  IN“Almost, Maine” is not what you’d call a knee-slapper. Instead, it’s humor strolls up and gently takes a seat on the bench that is a favorite of  several Almost couples. As the northern lights (courtesy of assistant director Ricky Fields) play across the wintry sky, each seeks, finds or loses love in ways that offer connecting cords to each onlooker.

The frequently whimsical comedy offers aspects of relationships in a series of eight numericaly-named vignettes, punctuated by a Prologue, Interlude and Epilogue. The last three feature Fields as Pete, Stephanie Musser as Ginette and a long-lasting (and nameless) snowball.

Almost, Maine  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol  INNumber One offers Glory (Shirley Robey) a widowed hiker in a search for closure and the northern lights. Knocking at the door of  East (Patrick Farran) she finds more than she was looking for and discovers that she is right where she needs to be.

A misspelled tattoo is the key in Number Two, when Jimmy (Craig Kilgore) runs into former girlfriend Sandrine (Julie Musser) during her bachelorette party in the local bar. The energetic waitress (April Sellers)  brings beer and a possible solution.

An audience favorite was Number Three which finds Steve (Bob Franklin) and Marvalyn (Karen Johnston) in the laundry room of their apartment building. There is a definite message in Steve’s frequent encounters with the ironing board and, in spite of this, the two part as friends.

The 11-year partners in Number Four, Lendall (Keith Sarber) and Gayle (Valerie Ong) engage in an hilarious game of romantic one-upmanship in which the tables are turned with a vengeance.

Randy (Kilgore) and Chad (Keith Sarber) in Number Five are two good-old-boys who discover their usual Friday night routine knocks them flat.

Number Six finds Phil (Zach Rivers) and Marci (Angie Berkshire) finishing an evening of ice skating and recriminations which no amount of wishing on the stars can salvage.

Hope (Amy Pawlosky) has come a very long way to answer a question in Number Seven, but is the Man (Farran) who answers the bell the one who asked?

Number Eight is the most physical of the stories and finds Dave (Mike Honderich) and Rhonda (Carly Dunn) literally dropping everything to determine the subject of a painting.

Director Kevin Egelsky has used a light touch on “Almost, Maine,” which has been described as “a midwinter night’s dream,” and the cast, made up of some theater veterans and several newcomers, delivers. The simple setting provides the right background for all the brief-but-telling tales.

“ALMOST, MAINE” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House, S.R. 120 in Bristol. For reservations call 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays.