Encore Michigan

Michigan Shakespeare Festival stages farcical favorite, ‘Charley’s Aunt’

Review July 31, 2022 Patrice Nolan

CANTON, Mich. — The Michigan Shakespeare Festival is back! This year’s lineup complements its two Shakespearean productions (Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor) with Charley’s Aunt, a historical farce written in 1892 by Brandon Thomas.

The comedy was the hit of its day, eventually being produced at the Globe Theatre and setting a new record for longest-running play worldwide. It continues to be a favorite with theatres around the world, enjoying adaptations for musical comedy, opera, and TV. This production, directed by MSF Producing Artistic Director Janice L Blixt and performed in the lovely Village Theatre of Canton, shows why the comedy has such long legs.

This period piece is a gem and Blixt delivers it in an authentic style that today’s audiences may not fully appreciate. What we tend to think of as over-the-top, melodramatic acting is precisely how it was done back in the day. Without the benefit of microphones, sound systems, and modern lighting, the best actors were those who played to the back of the house, with big gestures, exaggerated expressions, and shameless pandering to the audience. Nuance wasn’t a thing.

The cast of Charley’s Aunt delivers this style with shameless hilarity. We caught a performance on the first preview night and enjoyed every histrionic bit. This comedy tells  the story of would-be young lovers who are students at Oxford. In other words, they are upper-class twits who spend money irresponsibly, drink and smoke to excess, and rely on their man servants to navigate the world. It also means they are thorough gentlemen, who understand the meaning of Victorian propriety. Any rendezvous with a young lady must be chaperoned, to protect the lady’s reputation. The use of first names is not allowed until a formal understanding – including an engagement approved by all the parents and guardians – has been reached. Holding hands is off limits. That’s why, when Charley learns that his wealthy aunt is coming to visit him all the way from Brazil – and aunt he has never met – he has a legitimate excuse to invite the young ladies to luncheon. Charley can welcome his aunt and provide a suitable chaperone for the fair maidens, who are quickly invited to meet said aunt.

The girls in question, Kitty and Amy, are about to be whisked away to Scotland by their unsympathetic guardian, Stephen Spettigue. Charley and Jack are desperate to propose marriage to the girls before this happens. So, they ask their schoolmate, Lord Fancourt Babberly, to act as their wingman at the luncheon in order to distract Charley’s aunt. But no sooner is the luncheon accepted by the girls than Charley’s aunt is detained. Charley and Jack implore Babberly to assume the role, which he does because, after all, this is a farce.

And because this is a farce, no one notices that Babberly is a young man dressed in old lady’s clothing. Not the girls who embrace him, kiss his cheeks, and whisper in his ears their deepest secrets. (Infuriating their would-be beaus.) Not the men who greedily chase this wealthy widow. Not the supposedly sophisticated people who ignore the fact that Babberly’s sum knowledge of Brazil is limited to the confident declaration that “it’s where the nuts come from.” All goes surprisingly well until Charley’s real aunt shows up (because this is a farce) and the requisite zaniness ensues. Ultimately, this farcical plot unwinds and is happily resolved when true love finds its labyrinthian way.

This is a charming production with much to enjoy beyond the clever dialog and physical comedy. There are beautiful period costumes designed by Melanie Schuessler Bond. Clever modular set pieces are designed by Evan Frank and lit by Diane D. Fairchild. Period music and sound design is composed by Christopher Kriz..

Flint native Daniel Millhouse is delightfully silly as Lord Fancourt Babberly and the eponymous Charley’s Aunt. He is supported by a solid ensemble: Victor Yang is Jack, Ian Geers is Charley, Lydia Hiller is Kitty, Lauren Grace Thompson is Amy, Allan Ball is Spettigue, Robert Kauzlaric is Jack’s father, Adonis Perez Escobar is Brassett, the valet, Demetria Thomas is Charley’s actual aunt, and Faith Berry plays her adopted niece Ela.

Charley’s Aunt runs in repertory through August 21 at the Village Theatre in Canton. Show times and tickets are available online; for box office information, call the theatre at 734-394-5300.

Week of 8/8/2022

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