Cross-dressing mayhem is the source of ample hilarity in the laugh-out-loud Charley’s Aunt, a classic British farce at Weathervane Community Playhouse.
Director Nancy Cates, also co-artistic director for Coach House Theatre and the Ohio Shakespeare Festival, has a well-honed skill for bringing together casts that have excellent comedic timing. For Charley’s Aunt, she has included six of her regular actors, including Timothy Champion, Henry Bishop, Scott Shriner, Daniel Rylander, Mark Stoffer and Dede Klein.
In this story, set in Oxford, college student Jack Chesney is madly in love with the beautiful Kitty Verdun and his pal Charley feels the same way about Amy Spettigue. They want to invite their girlfriends over for lunch to proclaim their love but cannot do so without a female chaperone.
When Charley’s aunt is late arriving from Brazil, they coerce their buddy, Lord Fancourt Babberley, to stand in for the aunt rather than cancel their date. This makes perfect sense since Babbs is already dressed as a woman for an amateur play.
One of the running gags about these gents is that they never have any money or alcohol and they gamble too much. The young men resort to sponging off servants and trying to sneak bottles out of each other’s homes.
The 1892 play, written by English actor, playwright and composer Brandon Thomas, is what Thomas is best remembered for. It is set in the same year it premiered in London, where it became an instant smash hit.
This tale of mistaken identity doesn’t have as many slamming doors as other farces, but you do see characters popping in and out of a window and one “love-struck” gentleman running repeatedly across the stage after his intended.
As the cross-dressing Babbs, the gifted comic Rylander is performing the greatest role I’ve seen him play. His wild-eyed look, squawking high pitch and ungainly manner running around in a black mourning dress as the fake Aunt Donna Lucia are incredibly funny.
His Lord Fancourt Babberley is full of hysterics, including when he sits back like a man and mistakenly shows his green suit beneath his long black dress. Shriner and Rylander make a great team when Shriner’s Jack tries to feed Babbs cues for his aunt impersonation and he repeats them verbatim — as nonsensical dialogue — to the others.
The devilish Babbs may be a put-upon friend but he’s rather enjoying his role as the aunt, taking engagement proposals seriously and eating up the many kisses on the cheek that the pretty young girls give him as their “female” chaperone.
Shriner as Jack and Dan Sekanic as Charley look too middle-aged to be traditional college students but we soon forget this amid the hilarity. There’s plenty of physical comedy, including Sekanic carrying Rylander over his shoulder, and memorable scenes with Rylander pouring tea and smoking a cigar in his female disguise.
Malone University graduate Erin Moore and Ashland University grad Tara Kodosky are sweet and sunny as Amy and Kitty, Charley and Jack’s love interests.
Champion is perfectly blustery as Amy’s uncle, Stephen Spettigue, and Bishop brings true heart to his role as Col. Sir Francis Chesney, Jack’s father.
Rounding out the cast are the sarcastic servant Brassett, played by Stoffer; the millionaire widow Donna Lucia, brought to life with a knowing, baiting humor by Klein; and her lovely companion Ela, portrayed by Natalie Millar.
Scenic designer Alan Scott Ferrall has created three impressive sets, including Jack’s college rooms, the garden outside, and Spettigue’s drawing room. Much attention to detail has been paid for both residences, elegantly appointed with lovely arched doors and windows, colorful wallpaper and elegant furniture.
Period costumes by Jasen Smith also are extravagantly beautiful, especially the women’s gowns and little hats in rich golds and greens.
A farce wouldn’t be a proper farce without multiple happy endings, right? In Charley’s Aunt, once all the complications are finally untangled, the audience gets to see a big payoff with four happy couplings.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.