You want spoilers? I got spoilers. – XOXO Miss Jaye
Ever since Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon donned tasteful frocks to chase fame and Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, sticking men in dresses and pretending like the world around them somehow doesn’t notice has been a reliable gag for both stage and screen. The pretense is simple: obviously the audience is in on the joke, but somehow none of the characters in the show notice that these men have donned a wig and a pair of foam falsies and are presenting themselves as rather poor imitations of actual women; in fact, much of the comedy is rooted in the fact that the act is not successful. We, the audience, love feeling superior to the “dumb yokels” and their inability to recognize a man in a wig the way that the people of Metropolis are bamboozled by a simple pair of glasses.
Leading Ladies is one of these shows, and it’s the latest offering in the Fire Hall’s season; written by Ken Ludwig (Moon Over Buffalo) and directed by Jeff and Cary McMahon, the plot revolves around a couple of down-and-out Shakespearean actors, Jack (Brad Werner) and Leo (Max Anadon), who hear about the wealthy Florence (Deborah Todhunter) who wishes to leave her fortune to long-lost relatives Max and Steve. The actors decide to take on the roles, only to find out from the dim but enthusiastic Audrey (Hailee Awes) that Max and Steve are actually Maxine and Stephanie. Undeterred, they put on a couple of ridiculous costumes from their trunk of Shakespearean wonders and infiltrate the home, ingratiating themselves with Florence’s daughter Meg (Tina Wilkening) and causing havoc for Meg’s fiance Rev. Wooley (Greg Jones), Doc Myers (David Whitcomb), and Audrey’s rather dense beau Butch (Dave Kary).
Part of what makes this whole conceit work is that everything is underlined by a jovial but still uneasy bisexuality: there are always love interests, both male and female, who complicate the men’s cross-gender journey and the audience is left in an interesting tension between what they “know” and what they see. On the surface, they champion the same sex couples: when Jack (as Stephanie) pursues Audrey, the image on stage is of two women – but the audience cheers because they know the “truth” behind this flirtation: that Stephanie is actually a man and therefore this coupling reinforces heterosexuality. But in order to do that, they have to cheer for what looks like a lesbian couple. On the flip side, the audience is always meant to mock an unsuitable pairing between one of the men (again, Jack as Stephanie) and a male love interest (in this case, Doc Myers). Here we see the opposite happen: a man is pursuing a “woman,” what would seem to be the “natural order,” but we as the audience are meant to degrade and laugh at this pairing because we know the truth. This tension creates a sort of spectre of bisexuality that’s never entirely put to rest (in fact, I spent a great many months constructing a Masters thesis that argued that these sorts of portrayals lead to some of the complicated gender dynamics in some of the most interesting horror films in our culture, including the masterful Psycho, but that’s some gender theory for another day!) and much of the laughs and the unease come from what we see versus what we “know” to be true.
In the vein of shows like Some Like It Hot, this particular play doesn’t offer anything new and in fact sticks pretty close to the formula. There are no great revelations and we don’t really even get to see that much characters development: Jack and Leo end the show as men who aren’t that much different than when they started, and none of the other characters are that greatly changed by their interactions. But these narratives are perennially popular because of the easy laughs and the physical comedy, and this production doesn’t disappoint. Werner and Anadon are a bit clunky in their feminine footwear, and that’s sort of the point: the less believable they actually are as women, the more the audience can revel in the fact that they are somehow smarter than the characters. They clomp and preen, and I’m amazed how they can get through a show without losing their voices to the forced, shrill falsetto they present. Both men do bring occasional moments of vulnerability to their cross-dressed portrayals, but as is the nature of these shows the men behind the costumes are less changed by their adventures than by the new (strictly heterosexual) romances they’ve discovered.
Go into this show expecting a good laugh, and you won’t be disappointed: Werner and Anadon lead a cast that really plays their characters, and especially the physical situations, with gusto. I found Todhunter to be especially endearing as the stubborn matriarch who simply refuses to die, and Awes’ Audrey is extremely likable in her dopiness, always managing to work just the right amount of exposition or plot forwarding into her smiling and empty-headed rambles. There’s almost a winky knowing behind it, as if she’s the smart dumb girl who skates by and drops just enough hints to get exactly what she wants. Wilkening is becoming a familiar face at the Fire Hall and her kind but slightly bratty Meg is a great foil for Jones’ scheming Rev. Wooley.
The show plays for 2 more weekends, Thurs – Sat March 30 – April 8, with one more 2 pm Sunday Matinee on April 2. Tickets are $15 for adults, and $12 for students, seniors, and military. Get out and see this funny, fluffy little confection before it’s gone. It might not be a deep thinker, but it’s got some great belly laughs in store. And afterwards, call me up and we’ll pick apart the gender theory in the ooey-gooey center. Delicious!
Tags: bisexuality, Brad Werner, Cary McMahon, Champagne Dreams Productions, Chris Straayer, community theatre, cosmetics, Cross Gender, Crossdressers, crossdressing, Dave Kary, David Whitcomb, Deborah Todhunter, drag art, drag king, drag performance, drag queen, drag show, drag troupe, Fire Hall Theater, Fire Hall Theatre, Firehall Theater, Firehall Theatre, Greater Grand Forks Community Theater, Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre, Greg Jones, Hailee Awes, Jack Lemmon, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jeff McMahon, Ken Ludwig, Leading Ladies, Max Anadon, Miss Jaye, Moon Over Buffalo, Psycho, Some Like It Hot, Temporary Transvestite Films, Tina Wilkening, Tony Curtis, World of Champagne