Leilani Meng, who stars as the dazzling and mischievous former mistress of a sculptor in College of Marin’s production Black Comedy, never saw herself in the spotlight.
“I was much too scared to open my mouth on stage,” she confessed.
Meng grew up dancing ballet, not running about in farcical romps on opening nights. But once she’d stopped dancing, she'd often find herself on stage in non-speaking roles. She admired how actors were able to reinvent themselves through their character and their journey, Meng remembered.
“I wanted to be a part of that magic,” she said.
So she began to take classes.
The 27-year-old Meng, who is from San Rafael, is currently pursuing a drama major at College of Marin. Last year, Meng landed her first speaking role in a stage production. Now she is anchoring the leading female part in a production of Peter Schaffer’s Black Comedy, set to open at College of Marin’s Studio Theatre on April 28.
Black Comedy is a “very clever, and very very funny” one-act play set in London in the 1960’s, Meng said. The plot revolves around an artist named Brindsley, who finds himself attempting to impress his future father-in-law and net himself a job with a posh European art dealer when an unexpected power failure throws his plans into chaos.
Meng plays Clea, billed as the “not-so-old girlfriend.” Aside from getting a chance to try out an English accent, her main inspiration for wanting to be a part of the production was the opportunity to work with director Jeffrey Bihr.
“He is an amazing director because he’s such a good character actor. His accents, dialects and physical ability are very inspiring and extremely entertaining,” she said.
Bihr, a native San Franciscan, has worked as an actor, director, composer and educator for the last 30 years. He was a company member of the Berkeley Repertory Theaterfor seven seasons, and is currently a faculty member at Stanford, where he teaches acting, Shakespeare and movement, in addition to teaching and directing at College of Marin.
This is the first time Meng and Bihr have worked together, but he would happily do so again. “Leilani is a delight to work with. She is sweet, hard-working and gave a great audition to win the role of Clea,” he said.
Meng will be joining her former cast member from College of Marin’s Almost Maine, Daniel Labov Dunne, who stars as Brindsley.
From Fairfax, Dunne says that he loves how a good show has the power to make a close-knit family out of a group of strangers cast together.
“I was really happy to see that Leilani was cast. After we bumped into each other at the first round of auditions, I had a dream that we were cast in the same roles that we ended up landing a week later,” he said.
Dunne, 21, is currently majoring in drama at College of Marin and is a talented pianist, according to Meng. In one rehearsal Dunne played some impromptu music and he and Meng sang their lines instead of reading them, she recalled.
San Rafael resident Carolin Doyle plays Carol Melkett, Brindsley’s very spoiled and very silly fiancée.
Despite the comedic overtones of Black Comedy and the fun of working on the play, there remains a somber note for Meng, who lost two important people in her life last year: her first drama professor at College of Marin, Carla Zilbersmith, and her stepfather.
“Both of them told me I had a wonderful stage presence, and they were very encouraging. I am grateful for their support, and am inspired to live my life to the fullest in their memory,” she said.
For now, Meng is focused on her rapidly approaching opening night. Her wishes for the play’s success are very modest.
“I just hope the audience enjoys it as much as we do performing it," she said, "and that they hurt from laughing.”
And as for her plans beyond Black Comedy?
“I hope to one day be one of the fortunate ones who get paid to make what they love,” she said.
Black Comedy runs from April 28 to May 14 at College of Marin’s Studio Theater. For specific show times and ticket reservations, call the box office at (415)485-9385.