There is something especially fascinating about a play that you know knocked the socks (or sandals) off its original audiences. If we’re aware of what those first viewers brought to the experience, we can take away a lot, and the show becomes a time machine. The farcical Charley’s Aunt, by Brandon Thomas, is demonstrating that notion at a breakneck pace in the current Providence College Theatre production (through November 2).
D-DAY IN A DRAWING ROOM: Keyes, Francis, Orlando, and Burns.
The comedy was a hoot and a long-running hit in 1892 when it premiered in otherwise not-so-merry olde England, which had another decade to go before the dour Victorian era would end. As the informative theater program details, at the London premiere one prominent aristocrat laughed so hard that his seat collapsed, and the attending fireman toppled over, causing the curtain to come down mid-performance.
What could get those staid Victorians slapping their knees? Well, while vigorously denied at the time, the cross-dressed role of the title character bore an obvious resemblance, in mourning dress and diction, to Queen Victoria herself.
More to the point, what about the comedy’s success abroad at the time, when 20 companies were touring Europe and America by the end of the four-year London run? Obviously, there’s something about Charley’s Aunt that tickles the universal funnybone. It’s one of those plays that you can be sure is being staged somewhere in the world at any given time.
The PC production owes its success to director Brendan Byrnes, who has choreographed this like D-Day in a drawing room. Of course, the costume design by David Costa-Cabral ain’t too shabby, with more tassels on most of the billowing dresses than on a chorus line of Las Vegas showgirls. Patrick Lynch’s scenic design is simple and clever, with two doors, ready to be slammed, bracketing a floor as slanted as the off-balanced antics taking place upon it. Things start out with a chair in each corner, so symmetrical, so orderly. Byrnes destroys that order again and again, as those characters in their alliances form phalanxes, with chairs and without, against each other. With actors sometimes cheek-to-jowl, sometimes sprawled on the floor, at emotionally fraught moments the director quickly reconfigures them like a kid with toy soldiers.
The basic story is a simple one, although complication upon complication stretch it into 2-1/2 hours, as required by 19th-century audiences who wanted their evening’s worth.
Undergraduates Charley Wykeham (Stephen Orlando) and Jack Chesney (Marc Francis) are in love with Amy Spettigue (Colleen Burns) and Kitty Verdun (Suzanne Keyes), respectively. The trouble is, it would be scandalous to entertain them behind closed doors by themselves.
At first there is no problem, since Charley’s rich widowed aunt is expected to show up, visiting from Brazil — “where the nuts come from,” we are repeatedly reminded. But she cancels lunch, so Jack and Charlie recruit their mischievous friend Babs, Lord Fancourt Babberley (Alexander McIntyre), who reluctantly shoves on a wig and black gown. He soon gets into the role, especially when he’s treated as just one of the girls by the to-be fiancées of his friends. (They like to peck him on the cheek, apparently a wicked thrill in Victorian England.)