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THEATER REVIEW Charley's Aunt
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2020-02-25

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Playwright: Brandon Thomas

At: Saint Sebastian Players at St. Bonaventure Oratory, 1641 W. Diversey Ave. Tickets: $25; SaintSebastianPlayers.org, 773-404-7922. Runs through: March 15

Scholars may attribute the birth of cross-dressing comedy to Plautus and Shakespeare, but the genre as we know it today traces its origins to Brandon Thomas' record-breaking farce ( running for 1,466 performances before closing ). Since its premiere in 1892, it has been adapted for stage, film, opera and musicals in productions as far-ranging as Egypt, India and China, its rom-com premise duplicated by authors from Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest to Jean Poiret in La Cage Aux Folles.

The premise: Oxford lads Jack and Charley have invited their respective girlfriends to tea, followed by marriage proposals. To be sure, Victorian propriety mandates a chaperone for ladies visiting men's dormitories, but luckily, Charley's aunt and benefactor, after living expatriate for 20 years in Brazil ( "where the nuts come from" as opposed to Scotland, "where the whisky comes from" ), is to return that day to her native England, having in the intervening years advanced from secretary to wife of the late Dom Pedro d'Alvadorez. When her arrival is unexpectedly delayed, though, fellow student Fancourt Babberly ( "Babbs" to his intimates ) is persuaded to dress up in his costume for the upcoming school play and pose as the elderly relative. Further complicating this charade are two fathers eager to make a match with the wealthy widow, a pair of long-lost sweethearts, a much overworked butler and Byzantine legal complications regarding terms of inheritance.

The secret to playing this brand of mayhem is verbal and physical alacrity sufficient to set a pace reflecting impulse over introspection, along with the stamina to maintain it to its logical conclusion—but in that word "logical" lurks the factor too often derailing stagings in our age of abbreviated performance spans. The instant that actors succumb to their own screwball giddiness, their audience is left behind to founder in confusion until they drop out of the chase altogether.

One of the advantages to a membership-based company like the Saint Sebastian Players ( celebrating its 40th anniversary next year ), however, is the group rapport developed by performers working together over decades. While the heaviest lifting may fall upon Sean Michael Barrett—whose extended impersonation of the titular kinswoman calls to mind Nathan Lane—each of his teammates shoulder their share of the airborne progress at every second. Director Jack Dugan Carpenter likewise never permits his show's panoramic intricacy to eclipse its individual components, nor does dialect consultant Lizzie Williams allow the accents to fray at the edges, or stage manager Kaeley Osterman sanction scene changes devolving into noisy furniture removals.

As an increasing number of theater companies in 2020 are beginning to assess the merits of long-forgotten milestones of Western repertoire, playgoers should be grateful for the opportunity to rediscover this deserving classic.


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