Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Leading Ladies
Hillbarn Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Marie and Rosetta

Samantha Ricci, Adrienne Kaori Walters,
and Monica Cappuccini

Photo by Mark and Tracy Photography
Leo Clark summarizes to his fellow traveling thespian, Jack Gable, "It's been ten years and we're still at the bottom. Rock bottom!" For these two itinerant performers in 1958 who find themselves smack dab in the middle of Amish country to perform their "Scenes from Shakespeare" at the Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania, Moose Lodge, things cannot get much worse. In the midst of their highly dramatized mash-up of The Bard's most famous lines and scenes, they are booed off the stage, members of the lodge resign on the spot in disgust, and the two are sent packing to the local train station with no pay.

It is then that they discover that a local multimillionaire, ailing and on death's bed, has been searching for many years to no avail for the long-lost English children of her deceased sister; and she has now published ads seeking the now-adult Steve and Max in order to leave them her abundant inheritance. With only a few suitcases of miscellaneous costumes to their name and a penchant for English accents, Leo convinces a reluctant Jack that this is the chance for two starring roles with a potentially life-changing payoff. When they discover that "Steve" and "Max" are actually "Stephanie" and "Maxine," the two—just as Shakespeare's own troupe of all men once did—put on dresses, raise their voices, and swish in feminine fashion, hoping to capture the old lady's dough before she or anyone else suspects foul play.

And thus Ken Ludwig establishes in the first few minutes of his 2004 farce, Leading Ladies, a spoof in Shakespearean proportions of gender mix-ups, tangled romantic attractions, and potential disasters at every corner that somehow end up in a happy ending for all. Hillbarn Theatre is presenting a rib-tickling Leading Ladies that is packed with all the normal ingredients of stage farces such as slamming doors, frantic chases, and full-body flops on the floor. However, Director James Knipple has found a way to reap a mountain of additional laughs—making Ludwig's set-up and script even funnier—by casting women as both Leo and Jack (women who play men who then play women). For extra giggles, the director has also cast a man in the role of one of the play's women, a local named Audrey who will eventually fall in love with Jack (who is a woman playing a man playing a woman).

While the Shakespeare-mimicking situations in Ken Ludwig's Leading Ladies are overall amusing, it is director Knipple's gender-fluid casting decisions that make Hillbarn's Leading Ladies well worth a night of forgetting all the day's troubles and letting loose with many rounds of loud laughter.

Samantha Ricci and Adrienne Kaori Walters play the acting duo Leo (aka Maxine) and Jack (aka Stephanie), respectively. The two are a wonderfully matched pair, with Leo being the plotter and driver of the scheme that Jack actively and hilariously resists. Ms. Ricci's Leo and Maxine both have a kind of butch quality to them that gives her two characters a sense of being in control of each silly situation at hand—even when she clearly is not. Ms. Walters' two identities Jack and Stephanie both have a softer, gentler, but also more devilish side to them—delightfully funny aspects that are enhanced by her terrific array of facial expressions (ranging in silent pouting, anger, hurt, infatuation, etc.) that are a show unto themselves.

When they arrive at the house of the elderly Florence a confident Maxine (Leo) dressed as Cleopatra and a shy Stephanie (Jack) a fluttering butterfly-dressed character from a past Midsummer Night's Dream, the two draw rounds of audience laughter and mixed looks of shock, puzzlement, and curiosity from those on stage. But from the ailing Florence's resident niece Meg, there is immediate excitement—she being much more interested in someday becoming an actress herself, and in three weeks becoming the wife of the local evangelical preacher, Duncan. Duncan is immediately suspicious of the two lost nieces suddenly showing up just as their aunt is about to die.

Sarah Benjamin is Meg, a young woman with a personality brighter than even the many-colored, flowered skirts she wears. She years prior saw the real Leo and Jack doing their "Scenes of Shakespeare" and still quotes the New York Times article from their flyers touting Leo as "a living legend" (of course not knowing that Leo writes all the duo's reviews). When she discovers Maxine "knows" Leo—who of course is still in town after the disastrous night on the local stage—she gets a chance to meet Leo, who agrees to star her in her favorite play, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, the night before her wedding.

All of this sets up subsequent scenes of wild and crazy costume and personality switches between Leo/Maxine, who never seem to be in the room at the same time (!). And equally predictable and yet still funny, it establishes all that is needed for Leo to fall in love with Meg and for Meg to fall in love with Maxine—or maybe Leo.

None of this amuses the conservative Reverend Duncan, a blowhard Peter Ray Juarez, who is determined to rid the household of these sudden guests. His collared minister dislikes actors as much as Meg likes them, while at the same time, he constantly acts with awkward, too-large motions and an overly loud voice as if some stage's spotlight is on him whenever he is in the room.

Jack and Leo initially find out about Florence's search for her nieces through a Tasty Bites waitress named Audrey, as she is practicing the skating required for her new job down the aisles of the train station. Justin Travis Buchs is one of the night's highlights as he plays a young woman who has a heart and a smile as big as her oversized body that towers over everyone around her. She is engaged to a local boy in overalls, Butch, played in gleeful, aw-shucks, and down-home manners by Drew Reitz. But when the fellow actor of Maxine's friend Leo shows up suddenly (surprise, surprise)—Jack, whom Audrey met before he became Stephanie—something clicks inside the oft-giddy, giggling Audrey, who is already attracted in a strange way to who else but Jack's Stephanie.

And then the fun really begins, as character mix-ups, costume changes, and subplots galore begin to stack up higher and higher on a stage often full of running, hiding, falling people. Rounding out the cast is Butch's oft-dramatic father Doc (Scott Solomon), who has a habit of declaring his patient Florence dead when she is not. Florence (Monica Cappuccini) defies everyone's watch on her expected demise, showing up fully alive in full evening dress sipping martinis while always dragging behind her a dripping IV bag on its pole.

There is not much in the script or plot of Ken Ludwig's farce that is actually a huge surprise, with many formulaic but still funny turns of events occurring with increasingly faster speeds. But, as mentioned before, it is the casting of three characters in drag—two of which then dress yet again in drag—that makes many of Mr. Ludwig's lines particularly funny. In one instance, Audrey is cast as a man in the play Leo is going to do on Meg's pre-wedding night. Audrey is excited but remarks with tee-hees (to much laughter by us, as a knowing audience), that her assigned male part "is crazy ... me a guy." Mr. Buchs' Audrey rehearses her lines with a deep, gruff voice and very manly posture, immediately breaking into girly laughter and flittering mannerisms as if surprised "she" could be so masculine. Throughout, the director's insightful casting decisions provide new moments for hilarity that are not in the original script.

Nora Kelly has created a wonderfully attired country home for the rich Florence, aided by a host of properties designed by Rossi Issel that are perfect for the late 1950s home of a woman who still has many memories in her house from the decades prior. James Goode's sound design gives us some moments to laugh at off-stage, unseen mishaps as well as to relish in the tunes peppering the evening from the late '50s. Raven Winter's costumes both reflect the styles of period and create their own moments of laughter, as make-shift Shakespearean costumes or an old lady's turbaned outfit from an earlier, art deco decade appear. Her design of wigs and make-up, especially the over-done versions that drag queens love, are equally giggle-producers.

For all the many things to like about the Hillbarn production, the expected frenetic pace of the farce on opening night did at times suddenly stall for a few too many seconds, when we waited for the next costume change to appear through an empty doorway or when a sequence of slamming and opening doors did not synchronize quite as tightly as such a farce demands. And in a play where exaggeration is the norm, there are some instances of an actor's getting a bit too carried away—to the point of over-acting (especially true for the role of the sermonizing, very loud-mouthed Duncan). However, these are very well opening night, minor mishaps that can and will be corrected as the run continues.

Director James Knipple and the cast of Hillbarn's highly entertaining production of Ken Ludwig's buffoonery Leading Ladies take the playwright's crazy comedy and plant within it a gender-bending thread that ties the characters into new knots of mistaken identities that unwind in hilarious ways only seen by us, the all-knowing audience. The result is a good reason to head to Foster City to revel in all the double/triple sex-role hilarity.

Leading Ladies, through March 24, 2019, at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City CA. Tickets are available online at or by calling 650-349-6411.