By Ruth Ross
The loud, raucous laughter you may have heard coming from Madison on Saturday night was provoked by the uproarious Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s penultimate offering of the troupe’s 36th season, an old chestnut of a British comedy, Charley’s Aunt. Although more familiar to American audiences in its musical version, Where’s Charley? (which propelled Ray Bolger to stardom), the original version, written by Brandon Thomas in 1892 for a local hunt club’s annual sponsorship of a new play, can be considered the granddaddy of modern farce, preceding such gems as Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) and Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear (1907). (Above L-R: Isaac Hickox-Young, Erica Knight, Seamus Mulcahy, Emiley Kiser and Aaron McDaniel)
STNJ’s version of Charley’s Aunt pays faithful homage to the genre’s fast-paced, wacky formula of earnest young lovers vs. scheming parents/guardians, a preposterous disguise, an unflappable butler, witty dialogue, physical comedy and cross-dressing. The result: an evening of absurd fun—just the antidote to take one’s mind off our present-day woes.
Thomas’ ridiculous plot revolves around college boys Jack Chesney and Charles Wykeham, who, to gain the affections of the lovely Amy Spettigue and Kitty Verdun, invite the girls to tea in Jack’s rooms. The fly in the ointment is the lack of a chaperone so necessary to maintain respectability. When Charles learns that his guardian (whom he has never met), the elderly Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez, is coming to London, they attempt to enlist her in their scheme, but she declines to attend. What to do? Well, recruit their hard-up friend Lord Fancourt (“Babbs”) Babberly to don his amateur theatrical costume and impersonate Donna Lucia. The lie results in madcap mayhem as lecherous father/uncle/guardians disrupt the plan, the real Donna Lucia appears and complications multiply like rabbits. (Above L-R: Hickox-Young, McDaniel and Seams Mulcahy)
Once again, Joseph Discher proves he is an accomplished director of comedy; he keeps the action swirling around the stage without mishap as his talented cast deals very well with credible posh British accents delivering snappy repartee. Aaron McDaniel is smashing as Jack, the scheme’s mastermind. Thinking quickly on his feet, he’s always one step ahead of anyone else, his intelligence on full display, even if it’s used for silly mischief. Isaac Hickox-Young’s lovable yet dim Charley is no match for his friend’s connivance, which sets him adrift when things inevitably go wrong. On the distaff side, Emiley Kiser’s ditzy Amy Spettigue provides good dramatic foil to the more cynical Kitty Verdun, played with wise calculation by Erica Knight. As the real Donna Lucia, Erika Rolfsrud sails around the stage like a frigate; dignified yet girlish, she has great fun tweaking the situation without revealing her true identity. In a smaller role, that of Ela Delahay, Sally Kingsford ably conveys the young girl’s fanciful, romantic nature, notwithstanding her coincidental appearance on the scene. (Above, right: Rolfsrud and Sally Kingsford)
Adding to the bedlam are the two old men, both stock characters of English comedy. Stephen Spettigue, uncle of Amy and guardian of Kitty, is portrayed with bluster by John Ahlin; his courtship of Charley’s (fake) Aunt is lecherously hilarious. In contrast, David Andrew MacDonald’s Col. Sir Frances Chesney (below, right, with Mulcahy), Jack’s father, is more circumspect in his wooing, ever the gentleman who, when refused by his would-be inamorata, takes no for an answer and casts his marital net elsewhere. And overseeing the hijinks is the butler Brassett, played by Peter Simon Hilton (above, left) as a supercilious curmudgeon who has the true measure of these ridiculous people he serves and is not above letting the audience know exactly how he feels about them.
Seamus Mulcahy (right) as “Babbs,” portraying Charley’s very fictional aunt, is a force unto himself. His agility at physical comedy, his expressive face, his ability to milk a line of ludicrous dialogue are the true engines that drive the pandemonium to heights of wild laughter. Just watching him manage a hoop skirt is worth the price of a ticket.
This mayhem unfolds on an elegant set designed by Brian Prather: an Oxford college room, a garden and a London drawing room provide a canvas suitable to the time, place and action. Natalie Loveland’s elegant costumes befit each character. In his shorts, knee-high socks, white shoes, blazer and cap, Charley is the quintessential Oxford toff, and as he wrestles with them, Babbs’ hoop-skirted dowager’s black dress and lace scarf almost become characters themselves.
Debuting 1892, Charley’s Aunt was a huge hit, with an original London run of 1466 performances over four years and a long Broadway run in 1893! Yet underlying the fluff and silliness onstage, Charley’s Aunt has a deeper, more important message: It’s the power of love—the force that makes us do great and stupid things, sacrifice ourselves for it—is, as Discher says in his Director’s Notes, what “makes all the trouble worth it.”
So, give yourself and your family/friends a pre-Christmas gift of tickets to Charley’s Aunt. Its message of love and acceptance is even more important. Leavening such a weighty theme with absurdity provides worthy diversion from the upcoming election and political mischief Once again STNJ proves that it is a formidable theatrical force in suburban New Jersey. We are lucky to have such a talented troupe in our midst.
Charley’s Aunt will be performed at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater, 36 Madison Ave., Madison, on the campus of Drew University through November 18. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online.
Photo credits: Jerry Dalia.