Theater: Leading Ladies

Theatre Downtown's latest is a sparse farce

Ladies Men - (from left) Michael Colavolpe stars as Leo, Jamie-Lyn Hawkins as Meg and Rob Ross as Jack, in Leading Ladies
Ladies Men - (from left) Michael Colavolpe stars as Leo, Jamie-Lyn Hawkins as Meg and Rob Ross as Jack, in Leading Ladies

Leading Ladies

Through May 14
Theatre Downtown
2213 N. Orange Ave.

The rules of farce are strict and unforgiving. Anything that throws off the delicate balance upon which a comic farce relies for its buoyancy will either sink the ship of fools or, at least, cause it to list precariously.

First, the script must be genuinely funny - not so much in its wordplay, but in its situations and complications. Also, while a farce always occupies an alternate 
reality - for instance, a place where men in drag can pass as women even if their arms are hairy and their voices deep ­- the playwright must create an interior logic that grounds the characters in a recognizable universe.

Second, the play's director must move the action forward with appropriate sight gags, physical schtick and unrelenting speed. Any lapse of pacing or visual stimulation is an invitation for the audience to actually think about how absurd the goings-on in front of it are.

Third, the actors must be accomplished clowns - not just comedians - capable of the most intense corporal theatrics. Farce necessitates forcing the body to struggle through the script's contrived difficulties; overcoming obstacles that demand the farceur to commit himself to desperate acts of physical contortion, often bordering on mayhem.

The foregoing is a necessary explanation as to why the current production of Leading Ladies, a farce by Ken Ludwig now playing at Theatre Downtown, comes off as a mildly amusing trifle and not the boisterous laugh-fest it purports to be.

Ludwig's script about two English actors who pretend to be women in order to fool a wealthy dotard into granting them her fortune after her death is a clunky affair that does not afford its characters the kind of frantic situations that a first-class farce should. Beyond its well-worn premise of cross-dressing, there are few truly complicated scenes requiring quick exits or entrances, and there are too many sluggish interludes. Some characters are underwritten and relationships among them are often obtuse or illogical.

Director Tim DeBaun has not ramped up the action to breakneck speed. The pace is often leisurely and conversational when it needs to be sweaty and breathless. In addition, he has not taken advantage of the many possible moments in which he could have created comic business. Farce is often played between the lines of dialogue.

And none of the actors have taken their characterizations into areas of bodily risk. There is precious little physical humor in the show and not enough activity to move the comic Richter scale above a few tentative points. Despite a few decent performances, notably Michael Colavolpe as Leo, Jamie-Lyn Hawkins as Meg and Robb Ross as Jack, overall, Leading Ladies comes across as too limp and laggard.

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