‘Charley’s Aunt’ charms with comedic flair at Shakespeare Theatre

By LIZ KEILL

MADISON, NJ – Who knew that “Charley’s Aunt” would be such a riotous, ridiculous success?  This 1892 play written by Brandon Thomas has all the elements of farce, disguise, intrigue and absurdity to make it a hit, even today.

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Joseph Discher has directed a sterling cast in this fast-paced, handsome production. Set, of course, in Victorian times, presumably at St. Olde’s College, Oxford, the plot centers on two college students with love interests that they are intent on pursuing.

The only problem is that they’re not allowed to be alone with their future fiancés without a chaperone present. Charles Wykeham’s aunt is to arrive from Brazil (where the nuts are from), but her arrival is delayed. His friend, Jack Chesney, hits on the idea of talking their classmate, Lord Fancourt Babberly (Seamus Mulcahy) to fill in for the missing relative. He’s rehearsing the part of an elderly woman for a Varsity production, with costume to match. Naturally, this leads to bedlam for all concerned. Running interference is Jack’s valet, Brassett (Peter Simon Hilton), whose knowing presence and asides project even more humorous moments.

Aaron McDaniel as Jack is just about perfect as a young man who schemes but can’t quite carry off a simple offer of marriage to the lovely Kitty (Emiley Kiser). His pal, Charles (Isaac Hickox-Young) is totally confused, but goes along with the ploy so he can see his beloved Amy (Emiley Kisser) before the young ladies go off to Scotland. Kiser has the wide-eyed innocence to convince us that she see’s Charlie’s aunt as warm and motherly. Knight as Kitty projects a clear-eyed awareness and manages to straighten out Jack’s stumbling efforts to win her over.

The key to all this mayhem is their pal, Babberly, played with rapid-fire zaniness by Mulcahy  His attempts to serve tea are especially hilarious as are his efforts to escape the lecherous advances of Stephen Spettigue (John Ahlin). He’s a sputtering, conniving man who wants to marry the widowed aunt for her money. Spettigue’s  niece and ward are the young women being courted by Jack and Charles.

We also have Jack’s father, Colonel Sir Frances Chesney (David Andrew MacDonald) on hand. Jack initially says his father should make a play for the aunt’s hand, but that’s before he realizes she’s been delayed and before he’s come up with another scheme. At any rate, it’s all hilarious fun as one situation builds on another.

Finally, the real Donna Lucia D'Alvadorez (Erika Rolfsrud) arrives with her young companion, Ela (Sally Kingsford) Wouldn’t you know, Ela and  Babberly had a romantic rendezvous at an earlier time, so the game is up as far as his disguise is concerned.

It’s amazing this convoluted plot as survived so well over the years. No doubt there are updated references and insinuations, but nothing feels forced or out of place in this confection. Natalie Loveland’s ravishing costumes capture the formality of the upper crust, especially the evening gowns and men’s attire in Act III. The handsome scenic designs by Brian Prather establish the period, even with a proscenium curtain between acts one and two. Subtle lighting by Matthew E. Adelson adds to the delightful, frothy scenario.

There’s never a dull moment in “Charley’s Aunt.” It will put a smile on your face and keep it there, too.  We could all use some laughter in our lives, especially in today’s uncertain world. The play continues through Nov. 18 at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. For tickets, call 973-408-5600 or visit ShakespeareNJ.org.