by ANNA ROSENSWEIG
Some shows sneak up on you and win you over, complicating your initial impressions. Charley’s Aunt is one such show, which provided a rather enjoyable evening at the theater, despite a slow start and uneven pacing throughout. Much of what makes the Guthrie Theater’s production of Brandon Thomas’ wildly popular 1892 farce entertaining is John Skelley’s performance-within-a-performance as Lord Fancourt Babbery, an Oxford undergraduate who impersonates the aunt of his classmate Charley (Ben Mandelbaum). Skelley’s antics as Charley’s aunt are riotously funny, and turn what might have been a completely lackluster show into a memorable spectacle.
Why does Lord Fancourt Babbery (“Babbs” for short) impersonate Charley’s aunt? He’s roped into the scheme by Charley and another classmate, Jack (Matthew Amendt), who were counting on a visit from this mysterious aunt in order to court the objects of their affection (Ashley Rose Montondo as Amy Spettigue and Valeri Mudek as Kitty Verdun). When the aunt, the widowed millionairess Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez, who has lived most of her life abroad in Brazil, sends word that she won’t be visiting after all, Jack and Charley cannot bear the thought of missing out on an opportunity to see Amy and Kitty. And so they convince Babbs to put on a wig, a dress, and some womanly affectations.
As Babbs transforms into Donna Lucia, Skelley’s performance takes a sharp turn for the better. He seems perfect for this great comic role, in which Babbs is equal parts indignant at the position his friends have put him in, and titillated by the insight on the lives of women this role offers him. The best scenes revolve around the gender anxiety created by Babbs’ cross-dressing. “I’m a disgrace to my sex!” he shouts to Jack and Charley, frustrated at how the charade seems to emasculate him. But the fact that he proudly adjusts his artificially ample bosom while expressing his frustrations reveals the extent to which he’s concerned about disgracing the female sex as well.
Skelley hilariously communicates Babbs’ conflicted feelings about his role as Charley’s aunt through an impressive use of physical comedy and impeccable timing. With a flick of his wrist or a wink of his eye, Skelley quickly shifts through the nuances of Babbs’ performance to great effect. Kudos to director John Miller-Stephany, voice coach Lucinda Holshue, and movement coach Marcela Lorca, for helping to bring out the subtleties in the social anxiety that such a comedy of errors provokes. There’s a great scene in which Babbs as Donna Lucia plays the piano for the other women, and has trouble maintaining a stable feminine persona, a trouble which manifests through coughs, bellows, guffaws, and shoulder slumps, all of which shock his companions.
If “Charley’s Aunt” has any contemporary relevance, it’s in its staging of cross-dressing as pleasurable and exploratory. I’m not saying that the show is particularly subversive. The denouement is about as hetero-normative as one could imagine. And the appearance of the true Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez (played deftly by Sally Wingert), serves both to underscore the ridiculous quality of Babbs’ impersonation, and to reassert a kind of platonic ideal of Victorian-era beauty and grace. Even given this ultimate conventionality, there’s something to be said for a show that exposes how deeply entrenched such gender norms are, and that encourages us to laugh at them.
Despite the absolute delight that is Skelley’s performance, the rest of the show doesn’t quite land. Of course, Babbs’ performance is the center of the farce, and it makes sense that the high-points revolve around him/her. It’s understandable that the other characters play straight men and women to his comic performance. Still, it’s too bad that these other characters don’t feel fully realized, and that the show never quite gets on track enough to run off the rails. Much of the staging that doesn’t involve Babbs/Donna Lucia comes across as tired and stilted, as if the show is going through the motions of being a farce without actually being one. But for those seeking a good laugh “Charley’s Aunt” is worth seeing, if only for Skelley’s charming embodiment of an Oxford boy playing a bewildering old woman.