Monday, May 10, 2010

Charley’s Aunt revives at Chautauqua

Courtesy photo

Choosing a play to see is a lot like buying shoes. Much depends on your taste and purpose. If you’re drawn to witty reflection that illuminates upper class values of Victorian England, then Chautauqua’s current offering of Charley’s Aunt may be your cup of tea, especially if you’d like some choice laughs as crumpets.

The play, by Brandon Thomas, opened in London in 1892 and enjoyed many revivals since, including a 1941 film version starring Jack Benny. The story relies on a popular device for its humor and suspense: mistaken identity. In the process it reveals both the charms and prejudices of the mores it satirizes.

With wedlock in mind, a pair of Oxford undergraduates, Charley Wykeham (Jess Thomas) and Jack Chesney (Nick Palleschi) have their eyes on, respectively, two suitable young ladies, Amy Spettigue (Zoe Samborski) and Kitty Verdun (Analise Langford-Clark). One is the niece, the other a ward, of Stephen Spettigue (Richard Spierto) an overbearing London solicitor.

Initiating a respectable courtship requires a respectable chaperon, and Jack has just the ticket: his Brazilian aunt, Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez, who’s on her way for a visit. With that expectation in mind he sets up a meeting with the girls. To Jack’s horror, the aunt “from where the nuts come from” is delayed. The impulsive Jack, rather than postponing the meeting, recruits his somewhat ditsy pal Lord Fancourt Babberley (Marc Berman) to masquerade, in drag) as the aunt. (Costumes are by Eileen Beaver.)

Chaos follows, with the greedy Stephen Spettigue wooing Charley’s supposedly rich aunt despite her ugliness. Others contributing to the disorder include a cynical butler, Brasset (Daryl Petrig), who observes how his employers do everything “with a bang” except pay their bills. Eventually the real Donna Lucia arrives, played with an aristocratic warmth by Laura Sheridan. What’s more, she was once engaged to Jack’s father, Col. Sir Frances Chesney, and now completes the circle by resuming their engagement.

A contrite Lord Fancort drops his disguise and is forgiven. His prize, though, is Donna Lucia’s independently wealthy companion, Ela Delahay (Jackie Rouse).

The able cast is smartly directed by Diane Bartlett on two spare but attractive sets designed by Rodger Hoopman. Stage Manager Barrett Chew doubles as a porter and entertains with some soft-shoe dancing during the intermission.

Though much of the humor seems clumsy by today’s standards, the production has its charms. As the final show of its thirty-third season, the play sheds a nostalgic light on the artifice of England 118 years ago.

Charley’s Aunt continues through June 13 at the Chautauqua Playhouse, 5325 Engle Road in the La Sierra Community Center in Carmichael. Performance are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Admission is $17 general and $15 students, seniors, children, and SARTA members. Call (916) 489-7529. See also

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