The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s 2018 season has included some of the darkest plays it has ever presented (Shakespeare’s brutally violent “Titus Andronicus”; Sam Shepard’s portrait of a deeply dysfunctional family, “Buried Child”) as well as some first-class comedic froth (Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century classic “The Servant of Two Masters”).
Its current presentation, of Brandon Thomas’ 1892 farce “Charley’s Aunt,” falls into the latter category.
It’s pure silliness, but well-written, and perfectly executed by director Joseph Discher and a cast of 10. It’s from the same era as Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” (having, in fact, premiered just three years before it) and has much of the same flavor. And though it’s a tad less witty than “Earnest,” it offers more opportunities for uproarious physical comedy. Like “Earnest,” it features young lovers, mistaken identity and lots of frantic twists and turns on its way to a happy ending.
Two Oxford students, Jack (Aaron McDaniel) and Charles (Isaac Hickox-Young) are in love with Kitty (Erica Knight) and Amy (Emiley Kiser), respectively, but are having trouble summoning the bravery to propose. The imminent arrival of Charley’s aunt, Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez, a rich Brazilian widow whom Charley has never met, gives them an excuse to have a lunch for her, to which they will invite the young ladies, and, hopefully, have a chance to make their intentions clear.
Charley’s aunt is delayed, though, and so they call on their friend, Lord Fancourt “Babbs” Babberly — who has women’s clothing, since he has a female role in a school play — to impersonate her. The ploy works. But Donna Lucia (Erika Rolfsrud) shows up eventually — accompanied by her adopted niece, Ela (Sally Kingsford), who, wouldn’t you know it, happens to be a long-lost love of Babbs.
Meanwhile, Jack’s father, Col. Sir. Frances Chesney (David Andrew MacDonald) and Amy’s father, Stephen Spettigue (John Ahlin), both court the fake Donna Lucia, not realizing she is really Babbs — and that the real Donna Lucia is in their presence. Jack and Charles have to win Stephen Spettigue’s favor — Kitty is Spettigue’s ward in addition to Amy being his daughter, so he has to approve the marriages — while also attempting to keep him away from the horrified Babbs.
Can’t follow that? Don’t worry. As convoluted as it is, it’s all perfectly clear as it unfolds on the Shakespeare Theatre stage.
The comedic MVPs, I thought, were Ahlin as Spettigue, a cranky, crass man who softens his demeanor (coming off ridiculously, in the process) once he learns that Donna Lucia is unmarried and has a fortune, and Peter Simon Hilton as Brassett, Jack’s valet, who cuts everyone down to size with his withering remarks and supercilious glances.
Brian Prather’s scenic design evokes the sense of stuffy opulence in which these characters live, as do Natalie Loveland’s costumes, though Loveland does give Kitty and Amy colorful dresses that add a touch of cheerfulness.
In the program, Discher accurately calls it a “romp of a farce,” but adds that he also finds some higher meaning in the fact that the characters’ search for love “grounds it in reality.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with pure, high-quality escapism, which is pretty much how I saw “Charley’s Aunt.”
Discher concludes, in the program: “May the laughter it provides be a satisfying tonic for these times.”
“Charley’s Aunt” will be at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison through Nov. 18. Visit shakespearenj.org.