The classic comedy gets a handsome production at the hands of director John Miller Stephany, centered on a terrific performance by John Skelley as the cross-dressing Lord Fancourt Babberley. Sure, there's a lot of hand holding going on as the plot is clearly laid out for the audience, and Skelley's character is missed greatly whenever he's offstage, but it all comes together for a jolly, fun good time.
Charley's Aunt also serves as a showcase for the Guthrie/University of Minnesota B.F.A. acting training program, as all six of the young performers are either graduates or students. Their youthful energy teams up with the smooth, veteran skills of the rest of the company for expertly played comedy from top to bottom.
Since its debut in 1892, Charley's Aunt has been a perennial favorite of professional, amateur, and high school theaters. After all, the script is a well-honed comedy machine, the cast is relatively small, and the setting can be as simple (or sumptuous, as in the case of John Coyne's effort at the Guthrie) as you need. That familiarity has taken quite a bit of luster off the show. After you've seen a dozen husky football players take on the role of Babs, what else is there to see?
Quite a bit, as the cast of young artists and seasoned pros demonstrates at the McGuire Proscenium Stage. Their comic work is exquisite, drawing out the laughs as the farcical situation builds and builds until the finale. "Babs" is really the unwilling participant in the madness, suckered into the proceedings by his love-struck college chums, Jack (Matthew Amendt) and Charles (Ben Mandelbaum). They want to woo their young loves (Valeri Mudek and Ashley Rose Montondo) but can't without a chaperon. When Charley's promised (and unseen by all) aunt doesn't arrive, it's into the dress for Babs.
As the trio try to spin plates through the day with their deception, and with Jack and Charley wanting to propose to their girls as well, there are complications. They come in the guise of two pillars of society: Jack's father, Francis (Peter Thomson), and the girls' guardian, Spettigue (Colin McPhillamy), who begin wooing the disguised Babs. Oh, and the real aunt does show up (played by the always wonderful Sally Wingert), who then plays along with the deception, in part, because it seems like so much fun.
Skelley isn't playing a Monty Python-style Pepperpot here; part of the humor is that the illusion is so wafer-thin. It shouldn't take too much to pierce it, except that Victorian propriety prevents the essential question—"Hey, aren't you a man in that dress?"—from being asked. Skelley steps into that void with a character desperately trying to do the right "ladylike" things but failing because most of his character's dealings with women likely have come from afar.
There's one exception. He has a deep love like his friends, and she—in the way of limited casts—arrives as the ward, Ela (Thallis Santesteban), of the previously unseen aunt. Not only does that provide a further complication, it forces Babs to do more than just fend off the interests of amorous Victorian gentlemen. It's just a touch of depth, but it gives the love subplot—which really just keeps the story humming rather than being particularly romantic—a little heft.
You could delve in to the subtext here, especially centered on Victorian sexual repression or the barriers that gender and class build in Western societies, but that would be missing the full costume for the shawl. Skelley's antics, whether taking a much-needed cigar break or conducting a bit of business with a top hat and cup of tea, make the show fly. The energy flags whenever he's offstage, but the rest of the company works gamely to keep it ticking. That can come from Wingert's knowing glances when unraveling the story or from Charles Hubbell's Brassett, Jack's oh-so-proper attendant who proves himself to be a canny member of the lower classes, and who is quite clearly better put together mentally and financially than any of his "betters."
Again, Charley's Aunt isn't about subtext. It's about the joy of putting on a well-crafted bit of theatrical comedy, starting from a sturdy script and building up with a strong vision and terrific cast. In that, it succeeds on all counts.