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Bob Goepfert Reviews "Charley's Aunt"

If this holiday season you get a yearning for chestnuts roasting on an open hearth, a visit to Curtain Call Theatre in Latham might satisfy you.  There’s no open hearth, but the comedy “Charley’s Aunt” is a certainly a theatrical chestnut.

To offer but one example: the premise revolves about the dilemma of two men, Jack and Charley, who forbidden to entertain their loves Kitty and Amy without a female chaperone being present. The rules in 1892 were no female guardian, no visitation rights. When Charley’s rich aunt fails to arrive on her visit from Brazil, the two men convince a friend Lord Fancourt Babberley to put on a wig and female clothing to pretend to be Charley’s aunt.

Surprisingly the work is not as fragile as the plot suggests. While much of the comedy comes from the cross-dressing conceit it gets a little more complicated as the older males start to court the phony aunt – who of course is really a male. The concept gets even more tangled as the real aunt shows up. Since no one knows her, she is able to conceal her true identity and the situation becomes even more complicated. Granted it’s not a farce Moliere would be proud of, but for Boulevard comedy it’s pretty amusing stuff.

The play is heavy in exposition as new scenes are used to explain every new plot twist. It makes the play slow going in the first act and too frequently stops the action during the course of the play. However, once the work finds its gait, the farce becomes a pleasant couple of hours of theater. It works because of the smart direction of Chris Foster who respects the work by not letting his actors behave in an overly silly manner. Farce cannot work unless the characters believe the situation. At Curtain Call they not only believe, they fully commit to the importance of the proceedings. If they believe, the audience cares and even these trivial problems become funny.

This is especially true for Nate Beynon who plays Babberley. He is effective as the phony aunt because instead of playing slapstick, he starts as uncomfortable and the more he’s accepted as the rich widow the more he starts enjoying the situation. He grows with the role and in a play in which the stakes constantly increased his portrayal grows as well.

Indeed, most of the cast is true to the character they play. The younger performers are more droll than funny as they concentrate on mannerisms to establish the humor. The older men are more exuberant in their performances. George Fileau works very hard as Kitty’s guardian Spettigue. Sometimes too hard. His greed and insincerity are so blatant the character becomes more of a heavy than a comic foil.

Patrick White plays Charley’s father with unbridled energy that is fun but distracting. It’s not that White makes a bad choice. Indeed, he’s often funny and his energy is welcome. However because Foster directs the rest of the cast to be sedate, White’s is a solitary performance which, at times, makes it look as if he is in a different play.

Frank Oliva’s set design opens the small Curtain Call stage so that it comfortably accommodates 10 characters being on stage together. However, the lack of furnishings on the bare-bone set detracts from what should be a mood of shabby elegance for this period piece. Beth Ruman’s costumes are terrific and almost rescue the lack of visual interest in the production.

The Curtain Call effort shows why “Charley’s Aunt” has endured for 123 years, but it also indicates why it is infrequently revived.

“Charley’s Aunt” at Curtain Call Theatre in Latham. Through December 19. 877-7529.

 

Bob Goepfert is the arts editor for the Troy Record.

 
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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