REVIEW: Charley's Aunt

The Three Stooges have nothing on this classic slapstick comedy

A man in a dress is always funny. A man running in a dress is even funnier. And when John Skelley is the man sprinting about in a dress…well, that may be the funniest combination possible. That’s what director John Miller-Stephany was counting on when casting Skelley in the lead role of Charley’s Aunt, and it paid off big time.

Everything about Charley’s Aunt follows the cliché “the bigger the better.” Expressions are over-exaggerated and physical humor is akin to The Three Stooges. John Coyne’s set is beautifully elaborate and detailed—a set change between an outdoor veranda and a seating area even garnered a round of applause from the audience opening night. The only element that was so over-the-top it bordered on distracting were two characters’ satiny, highlighter-bright dresses designed by Jess Goldstein.   

Written by Brandon Thomas, himself a character actor, Charley’s Aunt is a farce on par with such classics as Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Wilder’s Some Like it Hot. The story follows love-struck Oxford students Jack Chesney (Matthew Amdendt) and his buddy, Charley Wykeham (Ben Mandelbaum), in their quest to propose to the lovely Kitty Verdun (Valeri Mudek) and Amy Spettigue (Ashley Rose Montondo). As they can’t be alone with the girls without a chaperone (this is the late 1800’s, remember), the boys use the visit of Charley’s aunt (whom he’s never met) as an excuse to get the girls to join them for lunch. When news arrives that Charley’s aunt is postponing her visit, the boys trick the gullible Lord Fancourt Babberley (John Skelley) into pretending to be Charley’s aunt—dress, wig, and all.

As in any good farce, all the pieces of the plot have the potential to fit together without flaw, but never do. Unexpected arrivals by Stephen Spettigue, Amy’s uncle and Kitty’s guardian (Colin McPhillamy); Jack’s father, Col. Sir Francis Chesney (Peter Thomson); and, of course, Charley’s real aunt (Salley Wingert), interrupt the boys’ plan and give the slapstick comedy plenty of fodder for never-ending chase scenes, wonderfully awkward attempts at romance, and Skelley’s display of his impressive grasp of comedic timing and stage presence.

Plot twists and ah-ha moments are hardly disguised throughout the show, but that’s the point. The audience is always in on the joke, and even has an interactive role as characters regularly break into asides directed to the audience. Fast-paced verbal and physical flourishes make the plot clip along at a quick enough speed that you don’t lose interest, and the actors’ dedication to being as animated as possible make the show entertaining and enjoyable.

So let go of high-brow expectations for sophisticated humor; embrace the in-your-face, wink-wink-nudge-nudge beauty of farce; and let yourself giggle—you won’t be alone.

Charley’s Aunt
Through January 15, 2012
Guthrie Theater, 818 Second St. S., Mpls.