Theater Review: “Charley’s Aunt” — A Tasty Theatrical Chestnut

This production of Charley’s Aunt has the rhythm of a Mozart operatic finale — all the parts contribute to a dizzy harmony.

Charley’s Aunt by Brandon Thomas. Directed by Charles Morey. Staged by the Peterborough Players, Peterborough, New Hampshire, through August 9.

A scene from the Peterborough Players production of "Charley's Aunt."

A scene from the Peterborough Players production of “Charley’s Aunt.” Photo: Deb Porter-Hayes.

By Jim Kates

In a completely rational world, Brandon Thomas’s 1892 farce Charley’s Aunt ought to be dead as a doornail. The setting in Oxford University digs, the matrimonial and financial constraints of the characters, the very language (where else are you as likely to hear “By George!” exclaimed so many times), even the late-Victorian titillation of cross-dressing should swamp the text in footnotes and consign it to a theatrical back room.

But we don’t live in a completely rational world, as farce in general and Charley’s Aunt in particular never tire of reminding us. In almost every generation it has been resurrected in one way or another to continuing box office success. The play has been reimagined as a musical, reproduced in more than one movie, and taken up by stage after stage, a geriatric warhorse among small theaters.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this,” pleasantly sighed one ticket-holder at the Peterborough Players’ opening night.

For a new production, history can be a terrible burden. So many come to it with expectations — and then there are the others, for whom it all is fresh and new and surprising. A director has to walk a very thin wire.

Director Charles Morey, M. F. (Master of Farce) has chosen to play it as straight as possible, with non-stop physical action and interaction that can smoothly incorporate even the accidental —- a rolling hat or a falling chair — to make it part of the play (in every sense of that word). Everything he has done with the old girl works; he gives Charley’s Aunt the rhythm of a Mozart operatic finale — all the parts contribute to a dizzy harmony.

The cast hasn’t quite caught up yet. For the most part, although they’re having lots of fun, on the first night they played self-consciously, knowing that they were in a farce and that they were playing ‘funny’ roles, not yet inhabiting the characters and letting the nonsense take care of itself. Across the boards, the women are more together than the men.

At the center, Kraig Swartz plays Lord Fancourt Babberley, an aristocratic undergraduate dragooned into impersonating Charley’s wealthy, widowed aunt Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez, lately come (but not arriving soon enough) from Brazil. Swartz gets the aunt down so well as an elderly woman in Victorian weeds (courtesy of costume designer Sam Fleming) so that we often forget that he’s supposed to be a man acting the part. She’s far more believable than the toff in trousers. This impersonation is supposed to allow his two schoolmates, Jack Chesney (Steven Walters) and Charles Wykeham (Alex Bodine) the opportunity to woo their chosen lovelies. Walters and Bodine look their parts to perfection, and move as well, but their words are still not yet their own.

As Chesney’s father, a retired Colonel from India, Patrick Reynolds doesn’t exude the requisite military exoticism, but he mirrors his son’s difficulties in handling courtship (or his son mirrors his) — this family trait provides the only real depth of character in Charley’s Aunt. They’re really the heart of the story, which, when you come down to it, is all about marriage proposals more or less successful. Michael Page never gets past caricature in playing Stephen Spettigue, the one who holds the pursestrings and legal strings of two of the young ladies’ futures.

These are Kitty Verdun and Amy Spettigue, better served by Karen Peakes and Alycia Kunkle respectively. Peakes is a Peterborough Players veteran, having come up through the apprentice Second Company, and Kunkle is a current member of the Second Company. It’s a mark of the Players’ generosity that they give such strong parts to newcomers (Bodine is also such an apprentice) and a mark of their quality that these newcomers perform so strongly.

But what of Charley’s aunt herself? Enter Lisa Bostnar, another veteran of the company so well established that you can see the influence of her acting style in Peakes. She projects a sane, still point in a wildly whirling world, a voice of incongruous reason who slily plays along while the others spin themselves deeper and deeper into muddy holes. She is seconded and ably matched by Bridget Beirne as Ela Delahay, Lord Fancourt’s long-lost love.

On the debit side, the luscious set designed by Roger Hanna does not work. Plenty of spectacular confectionery for the eye, yes, but a farce staging depends on momentum, and it is essential that that drive be sustained. A scenery change demands a twenty-minute gap between the second and third acts, and a lot of energy leaks away during the interval, including members of the audience who decide they won’t stay until the end. They miss the last part of an amusing play, but I understand their impatience.

Nevertheless, you can’t keep a good old chestnut — or a brazil nut — down. Charley’s Aunt defies rationality, fulfills expectations, and continues to delight.

Jim Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia. His translation of Mikhail Yeryomin: Selected Poems 1957-2009 (White Pine Press) is the winner of the second Cliff Becker Prize in Translation.

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