Considering that the show was a rite of passage for generations of high-school performers, it's a bit surprising to learn that the trio of young, leading men in the Guthrie Theater's production of Charley's Aunt had never performed in the play, and had barely heard of it before being cast.
"I had a friend who said it was his favorite show in high school, and I do get it now," says Matthew Amendt, an actor who got his start in the Twin Cities and is now primarily working out of New York City.
"It's one of those plays that's done a lot in high schools, but I had never heard of it," says John Skelley, who has gotten to know the show -- and especially the cross-dressing Lord Fancourt Babberley -- very well over the past few months during the run up to the opening of the Guthrie production.
That has meant plenty of work in unfamiliar costume pieces for Skelley. "I started with a rehearsal skirt. Then the costume shop came up with a mockup of the dress in muslin, and they've been giving me pieces as we've gone along. I have a lot of business with the dress, so it's been good to work on it during the rehearsal process," he says.
Brandon Thomas's farce was a massive success when it first hit the stage in 1892. The play centers on a trio of Oxford chums -- played by Skelley, Matt Amendt, and Ben Mandelbaum -- who, as often happens in farces, are forced to improvise when a promised aunt does not appear, sending the young Lord into the dowdy clothes of aging matron. There are love complications aplenty, including the amorous attention of a pair of middle-aged gentlemen, before the play hurtles to its conclusion.
It's a piece that didn't really come alive for the actors until they began to read it aloud. Part of that was due to the dense, detailed stage instructions on not just what the onstage business should be (a slap in the face, for example), but also how to accomplish it without actually hitting someone, Skelley says.
All of that gave the cast and director John Miller-Stephany plenty of material to work with as they built up their own production.
"There's a real sense of trying to work together," Skelley says. "All of us have worked hard to create the physical life of the play. We let everyone's ideas be heard and then sift through it. We're still fussing with it."
Skelley (2007), Amendt (2004) and Mandelbaum (2012) are all products of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training program. In fact, it was the program that first drew Amendt to Minnesota.
"I think I always wanted to be an actor," says Mandelbaum, who is making his professional debut with Charley's Aunt. "Every experience I've had in a play, when I'm playing a character who is really close to me, has allowed me to get know myself a little better. I've known for a long time I wanted to go to acting school."
One thing that has thrilled the young actors is the chance to perform with veterans like Sally Wingert, Peter Thomson, and Colin McPhillamy. "I'm really blessed to have worked here on a regular basis. There is a powerful, strong community of artists here, so it's great to be back in this wonderful place," Amendt says.
"I'm just on the edge of things, so I have no expectations, but to go for a life that has no ground beneath it shows a lot of bravery. We're surrounded by people who have been in the business for a long time, and I feel like they are brave, really cool people," Mandelbaum says.