First the good news: the design of Charley’s Aunt (at the Guthrie through Jan 15) is exquisite. The Guthrie’s tech department, the best in the country, really outdid themselves (between this play and the richly produced A Christmas Carol they must have labored overtime and eminently deserve the holiday vacation I hope they are enjoying). The gorgeous McGuire-filling sets (by John Coyne) are beautifully lit (by Marcus Dilliard). In particular, the costumes (by Jess Goldstein) thrill. The wigs are a marvel. I’m never quite sure who designs these; I always assume it’s the costumer, but perhaps I’m mistaken (and perhaps someone could enlighten me). If you require a reason to see this play, here it is.
The actors acquit themselves nicely. They do not give in to the temptation to make fun of the hoary old play (a temptation that Guthrie performers succumb to). Director John Miller-Stephany keeps the proceedings focused and honest, if slowish (though maybe it just felt that way to me).
It’s all about the men, this play: as the two slightly dim but plucky college boys who concoct the scheme to have their chum Lord Babberly play Aunt Donna Lucia, Matthew Amendt and Ben Mandelbaum are tirelessly funny play-drivers. Charles Hubbell plays Brassett the valet perfectly, arch and superior, tall and lanky, with a wry and slightly goofy smile. Everyone in the audience adored him (as did I). Peter Thomson provides some badly needed emotional honesty and as Col. Chesney, genuinely in love with his old flame, he was lovely. Colin McPhillamy played the ever-horny (Lord, he wants that money) Spettigue with relish. And John Skelley, the cross-dresser, whose enjoyment of his gutsy performance increases scene by scene (and actually becomes slightly disturbing), was a hoot.
The women are less satisfying (through no fault of the actors, who are all excellent). Kitty (Valeri Mudek) has blonde hair and Amy (Ashley Rose Montando) is brunette; apart from that I could discern no meaningful difference between them. Even the real Aunt Lucia (the marvelous Sally Wingert) is under-utilized. Her final revelation (“I am Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez”) feels decidedly anti-climactic. Only Thallis Santesteban as Ela generates real heat, as Lord Babberly’s beloved.
As to the play, well, gee. Charley’s Aunt (written by Brandon Thomas) is 120 years old and has been given many thousands of times. A farce, the play lacks the focused discipline of Feydeau’s best work, or the thematic intensity that animates Joe Orton, Gogol, et al. Like most old farces, Charley’s Aunt depends greatly on past-tense material – the winding up of the plot rubber-band. But when the band is released, the piece suffers from repetitive one-joke circularity. “I’m from Brazil, where the nuts come from,” comes up a half dozen times. All this makes the play long. In 1890, Lord Babberley’s cross-dressing must have been naughty and thrilling, but nowadays it feels silly.
So: it would be difficult for me personally to recommend this play. Still, I will admit that the opening night audience had a great time. If you’re looking for mindlessly amusing, superbly designed, and utterly unchallenging holiday entertainment, Charley’s Aunt might be the ticket.
For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.