What to do about that problem with Charley's Aunt? Since 1892 this silly, beautifully-built drawing room farce about young romance and a preposterous impersonation has been entertaining audiences around the world, horrifying the theatrically sophisticated while filling theaters with laughter and delight. Old-fashioned in its morals and mores, even for it's own 19th Century audience, I can't think of another play from that period that is so dismissible and indefensible and still, somehow, winning, sweet and (grudgingly) amusing. Director Karen Lund's craftsmanship is apparent throughout this evenly balanced production, the cast is thoroughly competent and the sets and costumes are quite beautiful. Anyone coming to see this show because they've seen it in the past (however many times) should be quite satisfied by this current staging. For a younger audience, I'm not sure how easy it will be to relate to the affected British-ism, the now passé, then “scandalous” device of a young man dressing as a woman, or the endless dance of propriety in pursuit of property.
Jack Chesney and his college chum Charles Wykeham realize they have a problem because their sweethearts are coming to visit and Charles' aunt has decided not to be there to chaperone as she has promised. That, of course, will not do for young ladies to visit young gentlemen with no chaperone in attendance, so they convince their fellow chum, Lord Fancourt Babberly, to dress as a woman and impersonate the wealthy aunt, Donna Lucia D'Alvadorez. When the fathers of the two students arrive and profess their amorous affection for the impersonating Aunt, it leads to “madcap” confusion and when the real Donna Lucia arrives it further complicates the romantic alignments. In the end, of course, all are with their proper partners and happiness prevails. Part of what makes this all seem so tired is that it is the model for countless mistaken identity, romantic manipulation, social impersonation situation comedies that followed.
As Jack, Eric Reidmann is a perfect to type, stiff upper-lip, stout-hearted and good humored fellow. His efforts at composing a love letter to his sweetheart Kitty (Anne Kennedy), at which he gets no farther than the salutation, is a perfect introduction to his indecisive, well-meaning incompetence. Josh Smyth, as the best friend Charley, is rather more substantial and his romance with the delicate Amy (Emily Fairbrook) was rather more satisfying, mostly because he has shown more character over the course of the nonsense than Jack. Babberly gets to wear the dress, and Steve West does a pretty good job of making the impersonation obvious, ridiculous and stereotypical, which a Victorian audience would expect in order to be able to comfortably laugh at and be entertained by a man in woman's clothing. He is an impostor, not an impersonator. Nolan Palmer had great faces and was very good at getting the laughs out of his role as Amy's avaricious father, Stephen Stettigue. Andrew Litsky had an amazing period accuracy (he looked like he could have stepped out of one of the portraits on the wall) in his portrayal of Jack's father, Colonel Chesney. Don Brady was the butler in service to all, droll and humorously world-weary.
My favorite performance, though, was Llysa Holland as Donna Lucia. She had a wonderful presence and a real sense of the stature and social standing of this rich woman who has spent most of her life in exotic Brazil, and now returns to find a world and a society too much as she had left it. Unfortunately, none of the other women's roles, including her charge Ela Delahay (Samie Detzer) had much they could do with characters written more to hold up pretty dresses than to address real women.
This production of “Charley's Aunt” does the job. The comic action is mechanically precise and the performances appropriate and skillful. The physical production, sets by Mark Lund and gorgeous costumes by Sarah Burch Gordon, created an elegance and richness that was quite satisfying. For me, what was not satisfying was any sense that this show needed to be done, yet again, not as a discovery for a new audience but as a reiteration for an old audience. There were laughs, and polite amusements, and some sweet romance as delicate as a lace doily, but (sorry) who cares? Maybe it's time for this show to be put back in the museum, acknowledged for what it generated and its remarkable longevity, but returned to a well-earned and perhaps overdue retirement.
PICTURED ABOVE: Steve West, Eric Riedmann and Nolan Palmer.
PHOTO BYPhoto by Eric Stuhaug