Monday, March 11, 2019

Cross-gender casting in Hillbarn's 'Leading Ladies'

The wealthy Florence (Monica Cappuccini) welcomes Leo (Samantha Ricci, left) posing as Maxine and Jack (Adrienne Kaori Walters) posing as Stephanie, whom she believes to be her nieces.
In his notes for Hillbarn Theatre’s production of Ken Ludwig’s “Leading Ladies,” artistic director Dan Demers says he loves comedies and loves to laugh.

He and the show’s audiences are getting their fill in this silly yet skillfully crafted farce.

It starts when two down-on-their-luck English actors are performing scenes from Shakespeare for a Moose lodge in York, Pa., in 1958. Their act is a hilarious mish-mash of some of the Bard’s most famous lines.

When they learn that a wealthy woman in the area is looking for her sister’s two children to share her $3 million estate with their cousin, who lives with her, they assume that the heirs-to-be, Steve and Max, are men.

However, they’re women, Stephanie and Maxine. Eager to get the money anyway, they disguise themselves as women and show up at the aging dowager’s home.

Complications arise when there’s a mutual attraction between them and the niece and a roller-skating waitress – shades of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”

But there’s more. Demers also says, “In conversations with Jim Knipple, our director, we decided to explore the idea of gender-blind casting, meaning we wanted to be open to the idea that two women could play the two leading men who then play women.”

Hence the two actors are played by Samantha Ricci as Leo Clark and by Adrienne Kaori Walters as Jack Gable. Leo, the instigator, becomes Maxine, while the reluctant Jack is Stephanie. 

Audrey (Justin Travis Buchs, right) has a word with Jack (Adrienne Kaori Walters).
In another twist, the roller-skating waitress, Audrey, is played by Justin Travis Buchs.

The other actors are cast by their gender. The two most grounded characters in this crew of zanies are Florence (Monica Cappuccini), the dowager, and Meg (Sarah Benjamin), her niece.

One of the play’s best sight gags involves Florence rushing around, trailing her IV stand behind her.

If there’s a villain, it’s Meg’s fiancĂ©, Duncan (Peter Ray Juarez), a strait-laced minister who seems mainly interested in her potential wealth. When Jack and Leo show up in their female guise, he’s both jealous and suspicious.

Completing the cast are Scott Solomon as the inept physician, Doc, and Drew Reitz as Butch, his son and Audrey’s boyfriend.

The crew’s attempted staging of “Twelfth Night” on the eve of Duncan and Meg’s wedding is another hilarious scene.

Despite the complications, “all’s well that ends well,” with the right matching of couples.

It might be difficult at first to wrap one’s head around the cross-gender casting, but willing suspension of disbelief and the actors’ skill make it all work.

On top of that, many of the costumes by Raven Winter are laugh-worthy themselves.

Adding to the fun are the drawing room set by Nora Kelly, lighting by David Gotlieb and sound by James Goode.

Running about two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission, “Leading Ladies” will continue through March 24 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit

 Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography