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Montana Rep times Leading Ladies just right

In a 1992 episode of "Seinfeld," George and Jerry find themselves stranded at the airport. To get home they con a limo driver into thinking they're his clients, Colin O'Brien and Dylan Murphy. Realizing the limo is headed to Madison Square Garden, the two assume the men they are impersonating must be headed to a Knicks and Bulls game. Lucky them! But the plot turns when George and Jerry find out they are impersonating white supremacists on their way to a convention. That's farce for you.

"Seinfeld" dabbles in farcical plot lines, but its modern take sheds the slapstick (with the exception of Kramer) for more psychological, darker comedy—though the plot lines remain just as improbable. Hyper dramatics and banter have been replaced with a subtle wink and dialog steeped in absurd minutiae. In old farce, love is on the line. In shows like "Seinfeld," it could be as trivial as a bowl of soup.

It's funny how Ken Ludwig's Leading Ladies, which first premiered in 2004, doesn't fit the profile of farce's evolution from physical slapstick to dark comedy. Perhaps that's because the story itself takes place in 1958, in the era of "I Love Lucy." Without a thread of modern styling, there's something antiquated about the show. And yet, it's perhaps that very fact—its return to disarming slapstick—that makes it so lovable.

click to enlarge Barret O’Brien, left, and Bret Tuomi star in the Montana Rep’s production of Leading Ladies. - PHOTO COURTESY OF TERRY CYR
  • Photo courtesy of Terry Cyr
  • Barret O’Brien, left, and Bret Tuomi star in the Montana Rep’s production of Leading Ladies.

The Montana Rep's Leading Ladies production is a must-see, and that's coming from someone who prefers dry comedy. It's performed at a sprinter's speed, unabashedly silly and cheerfully animated—and trying to be a sophisticated, reserved audience member doesn't work; you will laugh uncontrollably. Director Greg Johnson creates ever-revolving energy and momentum by keeping the effect of chaos strategically and deceptively on an organized track.

Leading Ladies tells the story of two friends, Leo (Bret Tuomi) and Jack (Barret O'Brien), Shakespearian actors doomed to the Moose Lodge circuit. They perform a mishmash of Shakespeare's famous lines and engage in dramatic swordfights to lukewarm crowds. They're at their wits end. On the train they learn of an old lady in York, Pa., who plans to give her fortune to Max and Steve, short for, as it turns out, Maxine and Stephanie—her long lost nieces. The duo ransacks their costume trunk and dress up as the nieces and claim the money. Of course, it's not so easy. Romantic mix-ups ensue. Jealousy and suspicion threaten to reveal their plot.

For all their over-the-top antics, O'Brien (former Missoula playwright for Eating Round the Bruise and Breach) and Tuomi play their characters with layered, subtle quirks. Despite thieving intents, you gain empathy for Leo's bright-eyed idealism and Jack's sweet and dim will to follow his friend anywhere. The actors keep those personas even in drag. And, we've seen this kind of cross-dressing before that relies on the inane notion that men dressing in women's clothing is comical in itself. It's so demeaning to be female! But Tuomi and O'Brien don't lean on that notion alone, fortunately. Their improv (or illusion of it) feels like it naturally stems from likable men who dream of love and good fortune. Throughout the tomfoolery and outrageous situations, you never lose your investment in them as real—however ridiculous—people.

Nora Mundé Gustuson plays Leo's love interest, Meg, with the wit and physical comedy of Lucille Ball. She's classically lovely and adorably funny. Seth Bowling, who always plays villains well, relishes Duncan's nasty pout and big dollop of narcissism making him the perfect straight man to Tuomi's and O'Brien's zaniness. Hannah Kanengieter as Audrey pretty much steals every scene with her odd social awkwardness. In some ways she fulfills the dumb-blonde stereotype, but she's far, far more intriguing with her roller skates and impression of Marlon Brando. She's gullible, but weird, and gut-wrenchingly hilarious.

Throughout the knock-down-and-drag-out antics, you'll notice how professional the cast is: how spot-on they gesture or smirk or scream. But it's not just about the acting. Christine L. Milodragovich's costumes are practically their own characters—classic and breathtaking for Meg, and absolutely outrageous when it comes to Maxine and Stephanie's garish, sometimes fairy-winged, often hideously poofy women's wear. And John Shaffner's and Joe Stewart's striking pastel stripes-and-flowers set design gives the illusion of an uncorrupted home perfect for the contrast of sexual innuendo and shenanigans.

Leading Ladies embraces a sort of joyful innocence and predictability you don't find in current sitcoms. But predictable plots don't diminish it. The show is almost an athletic event in its demand for comedic timing (the three-minute ending reenacting the whole play in reverse is breathtaking) and the actors' ability to give their characters depth, makes it all the richer. For Johnson, who marks his 20th year as the Montana Rep's artistic director, it's a home run.

On opening night, the show spurred the audience to jump to its feet and explode with applause. You couldn't help it. I predict that'll be the reaction every night for the production's entire tour.

Leading Ladies continues at the Montana Theatre inside UM's PARTV Building Thursday, Jan. 28–Saturday, Jan. 30 and Tuesday, Feb. 2–Thursday, Feb. 4, with a final performance on Sat. Feb. 6. 7:30 PM nightly. $18/$14 students and seniors/$8 kids 12 and under.

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