STNJ presents a a flat-out funny hit
Playwright and actor Brandon Thomas (1848-1914) was quoted in his obituary as having said, “I hoped to go down to fame as a great actor. If I go at all it will be as the author of Charley’s Aunt.” Considering the comedy’s initial run was for 1,466 performances over four years, and that it has been revived and adapted with great success ever since, it’s not a bad thing for which to be remembered. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison has finally taken up the challenge of presenting Charley’s Aunt and has come up with a flat-out funny hit.
At St. Olde’s College, Oxford, in the mid-1890’s, students Jack (Aaron McDaniel) and Charley (Isaac Hickox-Young) are in love with Kitty (Erica Knight) and Amy (Emiley Kiser). Charley’s wealthy aunt Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez (Erika Rolfsrud) whom he has never met is coming to call. The boys use her visit as an excuse to invite the girls to lunch. Also invited is Jack’s father, the recently impoverished Colonel Sir Frances Chesney (David Andrew MacDonald). Charley then receives word that his aunt has decided to postpone her visit. When their friend Lord Fancourt Babberley, known as “Babbs” (Seamus Mulcahy), appears dressed as an old lady for an amateur theatrical, the boys successfully convince him to pretend to be Charley’s aunt. Both Colonel Chesney and Amy’s irascible uncle Stephen Spettigue (John Ahlin) pay romantic attention to “Donna Lucia” for financial reasons. Later that day, Charley’s real aunt arrives unannounced with her adopted niece Ela (Sally Kingsford), the girl Babbs loved but lost track of. Donna Lucia recognizes Colonel Chesney as an old flame but conceals her true identity while the Colonel turns his romantic attentions to her. Things get progressively more convoluted and frantic, yet the evening ends with love conquering all. (From a 126-year-old farce, what else did you expect?)
The play is a merry troupe of farcical deception spun by playwright Brandon Thomas
Director Joseph Discher leads a merry troupe of farceurs through the web of deceptions spun by Brandon Thomas. Chief among them is Seamus Mulcahy in the demanding role of Babbs. His physical agility, manic energy, and expressive face capture the audience’s interest from his first appearance. His scenes with John Ahlin are hilarious, with Babbs trying to fend off the older man’s advances while keeping him occupied so his friends can woo their ladies. As Jack’s butler Brassett, Peter Simon Hilton leavens the play with sardonic observations about all the goings-on. The lovely Erica Knight scores with her portrayal of a sharp-minded young woman very much in love yet not above word-playfully teasing her beau. Finally, Erika Rolfsrud and David Andrew MacDonald pause the comedy to create believably touching scenes of a middle-aged couple reigniting the spark of their youthful romance.
Brian Prather has created a flexible set which easily transforms to three different locales, one for each of the play’s acts, enhanced by Matthew E. Adelson’s lighting. Natalie Loveland’s costumes are class- and period-perfect, with especially sumptuous outfits for the female characters.
Brandon Thomas may have had regrets for being remembered only as the author of Charley’s Aunt, but he did gift us with one of the finest farces the theatre has ever seen. The Shakespeare Theatre has given us an antidote to these worrisome times by allowing us to enjoy watching how one small deception can balloon out of all proportions yet come at last to a graceful resolution. It is a pleasure to see this delightful production. I encourage you to pay a call on Charley’s Aunt.
Charley’s Aunt is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison through November 18, 2018. For tickets and information, visit shakespearenj.org.