CEDAR CITY — As a theatre critic, there are moments when my fellow audience members laugh loudly, and I do not. Unfortunately, I am often too busy dissecting the elements of a play to fully experience what I should. So it was freeing for me to toss my head back and laugh at this year’s Utah Shakespeare Festival. Charley’s Aunt, written by Brandon Thomas and directed by David Ivers is full of puppy love, plotting, a lord in ladies’ clothes, and some outright lunacy.
Ivers mentions in his director’s notes that Aaron Galligan-Stierle, a beloved actor at the festival, was his assistant for this production. Galligan-Stierle is a brilliant comedian, and I can’t think of a better man to help run this circus. The play opens on Oxford college student Jack Chesney, played by Brendan Marshall-Rashid. He and his best friend, Charley Wykeham (Tasso Feldman), have fallen in love with two young ladies, whom they discuss with adoration and excitement. Feldman and Marshall-Rashid set the farcical tone of this piece with their exaggerated reactions and punctuated speech. Each character wants desperately to speak alone with the woman he adores, so they hatch a plot, which includes their good pal Lord Rancourt Babberly (whom they call Babbs) pretending to be Charley’s wealthy aunt. This hugely talented cast, and Ivers’s direction over the controlled chaos left me completely unaware of my surroundings; when the first intermission was reached, I felt like only ten minutes had passed.
There was a trend among some of the actors to walk the line between funny and frightening. I’m not sure how to describe it, but it happens when an actor laughs to the brink of craziness, or speaks just a bit too forcefully; this phenomenon gives the audience a kind of unease that, when experienced from the safety of a theater seat, can result in loud and open laughter. One of these actors is John G. Preston, who plays Jack’s father, Colonel Sir Francis Chesney. A caricature of a colonel in the British Empire, and he spoke with a joyful and authoritative voice, and his hearty laugh teetered between lovable and scary. Kelly Rogers employed the same technique in her role as Amy Spettigue, Charley’s sweetheart; her best comedic moments fell into the first act.
Additionally, I must mention the great Michael Doherty, the actor who played Babbs. Doherty plays a good kind friend to Jack and Charley, a nervous accomplice to their crazy plan, and ultimately a pretty scandalous old woman. Doherty has a special talent for conveying the flat-out craziness of the script, and he has an ability to make his face unbelievably red. Doherty is the star of the show and absolutely deserves acclaim.
Thomas’s script employed some repeating gags that felt like the chorus of a popular song: Babbs messing up the lines Jack prompts him to say, the two lads annoyance when their loves kiss old lady Babbs on the cheek, and repeated lines like, “Brazil: where the nuts come from!” These familiar moments endeared me to the characters and their situation.
Each character was dressed so well, thanks to Bill Black. Donna Lucia’s (Christine Jugueta) glittering purple gown, the top hats, straw hats, and huge Spettigue sideburns were the highlights for me. Preston was especially authoritative as he towered in his khaki uniform and thick mustache.
The set pieces in this production, although cumbersome and time-consuming to move, are beautiful and detailed. Jack Magaw designed three main locations, beginning with a nice college dorm with charming details like a tennis racket carefully leaning against an chair, crumpled papers on the floor near the waste basket, arched windows and crown molding. None of the young men have a dime in their pockets, but each are provided for in one way or another, allowing them to live well. Other sets included a courtyard outside the dorm with an unseen garden and Lord Spettigue’s home, which is richly furnished and feels very much like a wealthy man’s home. Each set carries with it themes of history, heraldry, tradition, and fraternity. The only drawback of the set was that the large set pieces had to be moved during two lengthy intermissions. Sadly, these changes broke the momentum of the action long enough for me to look at my watch and realize I was getting tired. Yet, they permitted Kirk Bookman to create the most beautiful rays of afternoon sunlight at the beginning of Act II.
At one point in the show, Doherty (dressed as Charley’s aunt) is being pursued all over the stage by John Pribyl (playing Lord Spettigue, Amy’s father), as Spettigue hopes to win the love of Charley’s aunt. The chase is funny enough as it is, but when Doherty is suddenly riding a bicycle onstage, it solidified the fact that I was witnessing a hysterical comedy. David Ivers has wrapped up this terrific production in a nice little bow for this year’s Utah Shakespeare Festival, including some of the funniest actors I’ve ever seen. Come to Cedar City, open that box, and just bask in the charm and horseplay. Let yourself laugh a little; I sure did.