Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Charley's Aunt by Brandon Thomas

We saw this as a live production at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

Brendan Marshall-Rashid, Michael Doherty, and Tasso Feldman
as Jack, "Babbs," and Charlie in the Utah Shakespeare Festival production of Charley's Aunt

Last year, the older four kids and I saw The Comedy of Errors at the tail end of our trip to Bryce Canyon National Park. This year, my wife suggested we find a way to catch one play on the way back from our Colorado vacation. (She and a friend have been going together to see the entire run of plays the last few summers.) This was a brilliant suggestion, and very much the sort of thing she would suggest. Yeah, I married well.

Charlie’s Aunt was written by Brandon Thomas. Have you heard of him? Me either. But my wife was familiar with the play. Apparently, it was his only significant hit, although he enjoyed a long career on the stage, and wrote other plays. It was Charlie’s Aunt that made him famous, however. Thomas himself 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." The play set a number of records in its time, including the then unprecedented 1,466 performances in its original London run from 1892 to 1896.

It is easy enough to see why. As a farcical work of inspired silliness, it is hard to beat. In the hands of the right actors, the play can result in constant laughter for over three hours. In the version we saw, the characteristically excellent acting and staging of the Utah Shakespeare Festival brought the story to life. My kids absolutely loved it, cracking up throughout even though it kept them up past 11:00 PM.

The basic outline of the plot is thus: Jack and Charlie are young undergraduates who fall in love with Kitty and Amy respectively. Amy is the daughter of the humorless and grasping Mr. Spettigue, who is also the guardian of Kitty’s estate. In an attempt to find an opportunity to declare their love, Jack and Charlie hatch the plan of holding a luncheon. Fortunately, Charlie’s aunt, who he has never met, has said she will be stopping by, giving the perfect excuse. The aunt, Donna Lucia d'Alvadorez, is a wealthy widower from Brazil. (“Where the nuts come from!”, a recurring joke in the play.)

At the last minute, the aunt sends word that she will be delayed, and the boys are in a quandary.  How can they keep the luncheon party on track without a chaperone? If they don’t, the girls will be away to Scotland for an extended trip, and they might never have a chance to woo the loves of their lives.

A solution presents itself. Lord Fancourt Babberley, another undergraduate, has come by, primarily to steal Jack’s Champagne, but also to try out his acting chops - as an elderly woman. He is cajoled into impersonating Charley’s Aunt. And then, Jack’s father shows up with news that inherited debts have impoverished both of them. And Spettigue invites himself with the intent of wooing the rich aunt. And then, the aunt herself makes an unexpected appearance only to find herself already there.

As they say, “complications ensue.”

I cannot say enough good things about the Utah Shakespeare Festival version of this play. As always, the sets, costumes, and especially the acting were outstanding. Michael Doherty is apparently a newcomer to the festival, but he stole the show as Babberley/Charley’s Aunt. Even from the balcony, his facial expressions were such fun to behold. As with any farce, there is no point in playing things in a dignified manner. The cast cut loose in the best possible way.

A few things that stood out as my favorite parts of the play:

First, there is the initial scene where Jack’s father shows up. As Jack admits, rather embarrassed, that he has lived beyond his means and cut up a bit at school, his father enthusiastically proclaims that he did it too! He is clearly far too proud of his slacker son, but is at least honest about his own past, rather than engaging in hypocritical moralism. In the original version, the father was played by Brandon Thomas himself. Since Thomas was best known (before this play debuted) as a character actor, I expect this part was hammed up a bit.

Also interesting was the difference in the way that Jack’s father and Spettigue attempt to “court” Charley’s Aunt. Jack’s father is clearly holding his nose as he does so. “She” is not attractive to him, even though her money is. But he is a poor actor, and Babberley lets him down gently. For reasons unknown, Spettigue seems to have let his lust for the aunt’s money completely take over his feelings. He seems genuinely smitten in his own way, and is devastated when his schemes fail. But one cannot feel too sorry for him, because he is either greedy or lecherous, depending on how one views it. In any case, he seems unconcerned with the fortunes of either his daughter or his ward, so long as he can profit.

Prior to this year, I had never heard of this play, despite its popularity and my general knowledge of Victorian era literature. I am glad that we had the opportunity to see this. I am also thankful that my kids enjoy live theater as well.

One more note on the actors: most of them were also simultaneously taking major roles in the other plays being simultaneously performed: Amadeus, South Pacific, King Lear, Two Gentlemen of Verona. I am always amazed at anyone who can remember the lines for major parts in two or three productions at the same time. Hats off to you, guys and gals!

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