Every so often I see a show that I’m relatively certain I’m the last on the planet to see. Such is the case with Charley’s Aunt which until last week I had somehow missed despite being assured it is frequently done. I feel slightly less embarrassed at this oversight due to the fact that The Douglas Morrisson Theatre has mounted a new adaptation that no one had seen up until opening weekend. Though miraculously unfamiliar with the original play, Charley’s Aunt ‘66 is indeed quintessential farce with a plot that is simple and predictable enough to understand the appeal. While I can’t speak to how it holds up to the original exactly, I can say there was much to chuckle about and be amused by in this version.
Locally made for local audiences the script hosts a plethora of tailored, geo-located joviality, poking fun at local rivalries and taking on a self-deprecating air at times. Placing it in the Bay Area and in the 60’s is a fun and colorful palette both politically and visually and affords the play additional liberties and opportunities for humor. The 1966 date stamp made it easier to explain away any out dated/traditional farcical components that the playwright (for plot reasons) likely wasn’t able to change or use to emphasize a timely political point. It’s a production that uses all the heightened comic tools in the arsenal of farce (repetition, asides, malapropisms, repetition, grand gestures, repetition etc.) but still surprisingly nuanced in places. Some of the joke don’t land or try a bit too hard (some inside theater jokes teetered on the too-meta-for-me-side) but in general this is cast with exceptional delivery that make it work.
It’s the cast that is perhaps the most difficult to describe here. There’s a district comedy dynamic I haven’t seen in a really long time working serious magic on the stage. Their presentations are charming, highly-stylized, and enjoyably physical. With elements reminiscent of Commedia dell’arte, Vaudeville, and even The Three Stooges, the physical paired exceedingly well with the cleverly written/well-paced banter. In the scores upon scores of shows I see in the Bay Area, I saw takes, choices, and exchanges I had NEVER seen before. I’m a hard sell and I was caught off guard by how funny this show was in places. Subscribing to the age-old comic format of louder, faster, funnier and fueled with fantastic facial expressions and perfect pauses, every last member of this cast seemed to be enjoying themselves and that joy of craft was visible to the audience to an endearing end.
I’d be hard pressed to think of a show where the sound and light design played such an integral part of the play’s humor. Expertly executed by astute board ops, the gimmick was, well, gimmicky, but easily embraced. There’s a method to the madness and once you get use to the theatrical devices and accept them as part of the farcical nature, it’s easy to really enjoy and respect this piece. Costuming as you can imagine is also full of flare – literally and figuratively. There was some gratuitous de-shirting – though no one was complaining, at least not within earshot. The set did its thing (as I find it always does marvelously at this theater) and while it took a long time to get to what we know will be a tidy and satisfying solution, I genuinely liked the look and feel of this show.
It’s a confounding, intriguing, motley little beast this show, and quite a likeable one from where I sit. An obvious collaborative group effort, truly its success attributed to all the artists on both sides of the stage. Rich with rapport and wit, despite a few challenges, this is a genuinely light and amusing show. A lively 4 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for a refreshing romp, firmly situated in the “campy” zone and complete with a superbly committed cast and production team. Charley’s Aunt ’66 plays through March 5th at the Douglas Morrisson Theatre in Hayward.