Charley’s Aunt premiered in London in 1892. It is one of those works that probably did a bit better when it first premiered, although a fun and farcical romp, it is a bit dated in material. Don’t let that deter you from attending- there are definitely some stand outs here, just suspend disbelief, don’t ask too many questions, and enjoy the show.
In this comedy of manners, Jack and his sidekick Charles are in love with two young ladies, Kitty and Amy respectively. They want to see them before they leave for Scotland the next day, but need a chaperone. They use the rouse of inviting them lunch to meet Charley’s Aunt, who is supposed to arrive that day. But Auntie is caught up, and sends word that she won’t come for a day or two more. The boys convince their friend Babbs to portray Charley’s Aunt, a role he is reluctant to play but gets better and better at as the evening progresses. Oh, and Charley’s Aunt is supposed to be rich beyond belief, so through in some over eager suitors and you have the makings of a comedic antics.
The two main gentleman are Jon Meeker as Jack Chesney, and Brandon Richards as Charles (Charley) Wykeham. For upper crust college boys, they fit the mold. I found Meeker’s words sometimes so fast and furious that I lost them, and his tendency to throw his whole face and body into the performance looks exhausting but comes across as a bit of overplayed. Charles is a perfect comedic sidekick with hat, seersucker suit and perfect timing for foils. The girls are Alice Gibson as Amy Spettigue, and Kellie Podsednik as Kitty Verdun. The girls are also quite cheery and in lovely dresses (costuming by Kristen Cooley and Barbara Madison Hauck), but also don’t quite make the final mark. Alice as Amy does the same overacting style that Meeker portrays, I think they throw a ton of work into overacting in the hope that it lands the joke, but it is so overdone it falls a little flat. Kellie was also not quite what I wanted her to be. Her words and her demeanor don’t go together- she tells Jack that she is willing to forgo her fortune and be a housewife, but she acts aloof and snooty. Maybe that is point, she isn’t going to make it- but I doubt that turn of events was the intended outcome. All four deserve distinction for their physical comedy- they rarely have a still moment on stage and I sure need to catch their breath post-show.
The standout performance of the evening though is David Shoemaker as Lord Fancourt Babberly or Babbs. His drag is terrible. And that is the point. He is a hysterical Charley’s Aunt, and is entire presence on stage is completely mesmerizing. His repeated introduction, that he was from Brazil, “where the nut comes from,” establishes a great double entendre. He relishes the attention and cheek smooches from the girls, much to the dismay of his counterparts Charley and Jack. He also involves himself in extreme physicality; jumping through windows, running in and out of the theater door, and generally leading the Scooby Doo styled door slams as the characters chase each other from one entrance to the next. When he was in a scene, it was hard to watch anyone else- his frolicking about, his facial expressions, his gait as a man pretending to be a woman and failing was utterly ubiquitous.
The rest of the cast does a great supporting job, the Butler Brassett is old and fussy, and breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience about his plight. Tom Wyatt is Stephen Spettigue, the girls ward, and his pompous hat, horrible wig and impassioned pursuit of Charley’s Aunt is whimsical. His slapstick silliness draws many of the laughs from the audience; including the nastiest introductory hand-kiss in history. Michael Panzarrotto is Colonel Sir Francis Chesney, Jack’s father. He also pursues Charley’s Aunt, but after a thwarted proposal attempt, he lays low and allows Spettigue the victory of pursuit. Charley’s REAL Aunt appears of course to add to the mix, Donna Lucia is played by Maribeth Vogel who does an excellent job of being stable and normal. Her niece/ward though, Jennifer Skarzinski as Ela Delahay looks as old if not older than her “aunt.” She does a great job of being perky, innocent, and keeping that Shirley Temple wig intact but it is hard to imagine that she is of an age to date Babbs.
The ending too is a bit Disney-esque. Of course in British comedy the man always gets his girl and everyone except the fool ends up happy, coupled up, and laughing at the antics that they just preposterously portrayed.
Director Kristen Cooley keeps things light and fun with this piece. Set designer Moe Conn has developed a hinged set that flips at ease to portray the dorm room, the garden, and dinner at Sir Spettigue’s house. The musical interludes were charming and era-appropriate. The show also began at 8:00 sharp, I guess in 1892 there is no five-minute theater hold (lol).
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? You should go, and try to let loose, and just enjoy the show. Is the material a bit dated? Is the overwrought acting in some parts too much? Yes, but all in all Shoemaker is worth the price of admission alone, and who doesn’t need a good laugh this holiday season to forget all the other nonsense? Go, laugh, and revel in the nonsense.
Running time about two and a half hours with one intermission. Running at Fells Point Corner Theater through 12/23.