The story is as old as romance itself. Boy meets girl, falls in love, and (flustered by the rigors of social etiquette) convinces a friend to impersonate an elderly woman to act as chaperone to the courtship. Admittedly the latter scenario, at least in real life, occurs far less frequently than the other two. But throughout the farcical twists and trysts of playwright Brandon Thomas’ Charley’s Aunt, nothing comes to signify passion quite like a cross-dressing, cigar smoking Cupid. Led by a standout performance of the imposter title character from John Skelley, the Guthrie Theater’s latest take on Charley’s Aunt offers up a wonderfully loony lampooning of romance.
Recognizing that few subjects inspire as much emotional agitation as “proper” courtship rituals (especially in the play’s timeframe of late 1800’s England), Thomas constructed Charley’s Aunt around a patently absurd, yet widely empathetic premise. You see, Jack Chesney and Charles Wykeham share a common problem. Both are feverish in love, but lack an acceptable occasion to share such sentiments with their sweethearts. Thankfully an anticipated visit by Charley’s aunt, the illustrious Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez, promises a respectable forum for pledging their devotion. When Donna Lucia is delayed, however, Jack and Charles must scheme to disguise a third friend, the wisecracking Lord Fancourt Babberley (aka Babbs), as the absent dowager. Unfortunately this ruse has more consequences than the boys intended, especially when the amorous entanglements ensnare both Jack’s blue-blooded father and their dates’ ultra-restrictive guardian.
Yet even with so many plot threads continually interweaving, the work never feels labored or confused. While a large part of this success derives from a well-honed script that orchestrates zany mechanisms like comic clockwork, credit must also be given to director John Miller-Stephany for embracing the inherently ludicrous conceits. Taken too seriously, Charley’s Aunt could have easily succumbed to flat superficiality, but Miller-Stephany instead amps up the comic energy, alternating continuous verbal zingers with breathless bouts of slapstick.
The production also features a ringer in the form of John Skelley, an actor who transforms the role of Babbs with comic perfection, bounding from deadpan sarcasm to mischievous glee with each preposterous turn of the plot. Whether shamelessly soliciting the affections of his friends’ dates, using a top hat as an impromptu teacup or obliviously belting out a sea chantey at the piano, Skelley embodies the boisterous irreverence of the work, evincing a committed absurdity consisting equally of Buster Keaton and Peter Sellers.
But while Skelley owns the spotlight, the surrounding cast is no less compelling. Matthew Amendt (as Jack) and Ben Mandelbaum (as Charles) engage in enough consistently witty banter to underscore their feeble dearth of flirtatious prowess. Mercifully such romantic ineptitude is countered by the knowing confidence of their dates, played with assured charm by Ashley Rose Montondo (as Amy Spettigue) and Valeri Mudek (as Kitty Verdun).
Further exemplifying the Guthrie’s knack for charismatic casting, Charley’s Aunt provides memorable turns from the trio of Colin McPhillamy (as the curmudgeonly Stephen Spettigue), Peter Thomson (as the dignified Col. Sir Francis Chesney) and Charles Hubbel (as the continually put upon attendant, Brassett). As if this group wasn’t compelling enough, the production perfects the cast with Thallis Santesteban (as the romantically innocent Ela Delahay) and Sally Wingert (as the real Donna Lucia).
Lit with the reliable precision of Marcus Dilliard, the production’s sprightly tone is heightened by costume designer Jess Goldstein’s vibrant array of period approximated suits and dresses. In marked contrast, Goldenstein reserves the show’s one drab outfit for the imitation Donna Lucia whose appearance remains hilariously unladylike (with or without a flower arrangement planted in his bosom). Add the vastly scaled and immaculately detailed set design (which at one point elicited audible gasps) of John Coyne and Charley’s Aunt achieves a felicitous style perfectly suited to the material.
On a theatrical evaluation, Charley’s Aunt might not be counted in the same class as more satirically heavy works. Nevertheless, the work’s irreverent sense of humor emerges from an affectionate form of subversion; one that mocks the rituals of romance even while savoring the underlying sentiment.
Charley’s Aunt runs through January 15th.