Sunday, November 21, 2010

Charley's Aunt

Two Oxford students in 1892 are in love with two young women and invite them to lunch to tell them so, but need a chaperone to maintain propriety. Charley Wykeham’s aunt (who he’s never met) is conveniently scheduled to be around, until she inconveniently cancels, and they enlist a classmate to impersonate her. Various complications ensue.

 It’s an old chestnut, a war horse of a play—or maybe a charley horse chestnut. Charley’s Aunt by ex-music hall performer Brandon Thomas was so popular for so long when it opened in England in 1892 that it spawned associated merchandise, like Star Wars or Harry Potter. In the U.S. there have been six Broadway productions of this cross-dressing farce, beginning quickly in 1893 but ending ignominiously in 1970 when it closed in a week. These days it’s seen most often in high school and college productions, and it’s now at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka.

 So questions naturally arise with plays of this pedigree: does it translate? Does it still work? Is it still funny? Thanks to the NCRT actors and probably coaching by director Nathan Emmons, the British part does translate.  In particular Jasper Anderton (as one of the students) and Anders Carlson (as the cross-dressing Lord Babberly) not only nail the Brit accents, they revel in them, and use their music (especially the resonant possibilities of deeper tones) to create as well as enhance the comedy.

 The cultural differences from that age to this don’t seem much of a barrier either. The actors were mostly convincing. Anders Carlson has the central comic part and came through with his best sustained performance that I can recall. Phil Zastrow had some crazed Alistair Sims moments, while Kathleen Marshall (as Charley’s real aunt) was intriguingly understated, and the rest of the cast carried their required load: Neal Schoonmaker, Brittany Williams, Lanelle Chavez, David Moore and Jackie Bookstein.

 But does it work? It’s certainly funny some of the time. Though it isn’t pure farce (it ends up with more marriages than a Shakespeare comedy), that’s the source of its laughs. But farce is about concentrated energy, and this play sprawls, as does this production.

 Charley’s Aunt has also been made into movies in Germany, Denmark and Russia as well as the U.S. and England. Unsurprisingly none were faithful to the play, but that could be the key to reviving it. The NCRT production even keeps the old three act structure, resulting in a play that is too long and too diffuse to maintain the energy of farce. It also creaks at times, like a farce with a charley horse.

 This production also locates the action throughout the theatre, including in the aisles. I realize that diffusion in the pursuit of variety and “stage pictures” is the theatrical fashion and I’m unlikely to convince anyone that people shouting at each other from long distances bleeds both drama and comedy from the stage (or the aisles). But it may hurt particularly in farce, where in a sense the comedy comes from claustrophobia.

 So, some good jokes and good performances. Jennifer Trustem uses the period to create striking costumes, particularly the dresses. Scenic designer Daniel Lawrence and Scenic Artist Bruce Keller created a cleverly useful set. Charley’s Aunt plays at NCRT Fridays and Saturdays through December 11, with a Thursday performance on December 9.

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