Friday ∗ 24 Feb 2012

on Repertory Philippines’ “Leading Ladies”

was it fun? yes. was it funny? absolutely. but also it banks on layer upon layer of intertextuality. you need to know some Shakespeare to have a sense of how absurd it is that these two actors Leo and Jack are in Amish country performing two-man-excerpts. you need to have a sense of the context that is York, as old and rich and conservative suburban community so you’d know how while Meg is a woman who knows of a bigger world, she stays put and is engaged to be married to the minister. you need to have a sense of how this small cast and its dynamism is premised on 1950s America and its changing cultural landscape, where a family doctor, an aunt Florence who refuses to die, and the most random of bimbos on that stage are but symptoms.

of course without banking on all of these, Repertory Philippines’ Leading Ladies would still be that funny play about cross-dressing British men. but appreciating it as such would be to think this nothing but a 1980s Roderick Paulate movie.

which it isn’t. at all. in fact the funnies are premised on farce, but it is farce that is so well-entrenched in the absurdity of this context, that one must get lost in that narrative. of course that is all only possible in this case, and especially with farce, if the actors are extraordinarily talented, or just ones that will make it easy for you to get lost in the frenzy and comedy that’s here.

in this sense this production’s Leo-turned-Maxene (James Stacey) could only be considered a failure, where his lankiness came off as unease onstage, where there seemed to be too little charisma worked into his characterization, whether as Max or Leo. he was funny yes, but it was really because he was the tall cross-dressing man between the two male leads. though of course in this case height really doesn’t matter, as much as timing does. this is because in fact Jack-turned-Stephanie (Topper Fabregas) was rhyme and reason for laughter here, even as he looked far from being the British man that is Stacey.

Fabregas’ gift is perfect comedic timing, one that doesn’t fail throughout the fast-paced narrative, from pretending to be deaf-mute to appearing in the strangest of cross-dressing outfits, from responding to situations with one-liners to sitting quietly on the couch or the walking demurely up and down the stairs. Fabregas in fact carries the repartee with Stacey on his shoulders, as he also does end up taking control of the comedic situations he is part of.

but the one who’s at the center of this narrative is actually Meg (Cris Villonco), the niece of the old woman Florence who was looking for her long-lost nieces Maxene and Stephanie. it is in this character that less of the physical comedy lies, but on whom the inner crisis of the whole narrative depends. that inner crisis being the changing times and how it puts into question notions of convention and conservatism, the more obvious crisis being why would this spit-of-a-girl marry the less-than-charming minister?

herein lies Meg’s complexity as a character: she is not dumb, but she knows of the value of staying where she’s at. she dreams for elsewhere, but she knows she must stay put.

it is Villonco’s portrayal that allow for this complexity as well, refusing that Meg be treated as just another sheltered belle of suburban 1950s America. in instances where Meg is revealed to be more than the conservative dresses she was wearing, Villonco’s portrayal is at its best, dropping lines that highlighted the discomfort of conservative Meg on the one hand, and the slow coming-into-daring of confident Meg on the other. so those revelations of lying in bed topless on days that are just too much to handle, or of falling in love with Maxene (instead of Leo), these are rational because it is set-up well by Villonco. it’s easy to imagine how these could fail in some other less-skilled actresses’ hands.

and here is why it can only be important that farce be taken to mean more than just two cross-dressing men on stage. it’s when we go beyond that and find that here is absurdity at its best, that we might also see how this is critical of the times it is set in. that it might apply still, and in some form, in the present might be precisely the point of the laughter.

Leading Ladies is by Ken Ludwig, and directed by Michael Williams for Repertory Philippines

Posted in: arts and culture, entablado, kultura, review, teatro

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