Recently, many people were entertained in the Town Hall auditorium at performances of Leading Ladies. Stealing the show in the St. Marys Community Players’ spring production were the “ladies,” Landon Hoare and Jamie Cottle. They played two down-on-their-luck actors who disguise themselves as females in order to claim an inheritance. As added value, the audience received a souvenir program containing not only information about the director, cast and crew but also a delightful article by Anna Ferguson (remembered by many Journal Argus readers as Anna Lynn Hamilton.)
Drawing on her extensive experience as a professional actor, she outlines the long history of farcical plays and explains why they have always been popular: “Usually they incorporate chicanery, disguises and mistaken identity. The audience often sees absurd situations where men dress as women and vice versa.” To succeed, they depend on “the skilled timing of the cast as they switch costumes and make rapid exits and entrances.” To help set this particular production in context, Ferguson mentions some of the professional troupes who appeared on the stage of the Opera House from its opening in 1880 into the early 1900s. Farce and comic “buffoonery” consistently attracted good crowds.
Local amateur theatrical groups also tried their hand at farce. In the 1860s and ’70s, it was a tradition that the young bachelors of the community — perhaps in town temporarily to gain experience in banks, offices or stores — would put together a concert, including farcical skits, in the week between Christmas and New Years Eve. Everyone could attend but the show’s underlying aim was to impress attractive and single young women in the audience.
The photograph featured this week is undated but was probably taken a few years after these annual bachelors’ performances. It follows in the same tradition: all the people in the picture are men or boys, four of them playing female roles. They are unidentified — the false mustaches and wigs make this task even harder. They are posed in a photographer’s studio and so we can’t tell where their performance took place — although it might have been the Opera House.
Judging by the costumes, the play was Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, an early work and essentially a farce. Two sets of identical twins, separated as infants, find themselves as young adults in the same city. Many instances of mistaken identity seem to lead to potentially dangerous consequences until final revelations result in a happy reunion of the families. We don’t know how successful this particular performance was but the actors look pleased with themselves and arranged for this photographic record. Audience members, very familiar with cast members, would have taken great delight in seeing them in improbable roles.