By Ryan D. Paul
Let me tell you what you need to know about Charley’s Aunt. First, do not be late. She always starts her productions on time. Second, be sure you eat before you visit. She does not like people unwrapping things while she is in the middle of something. The noise is very distracting. Finally, and this is critical, Charley’s Aunt is a dude.
In the days of William Shakespeare, women were not seen regularly on stage and boys or young men played female roles. Many of these boy players became quite famous and communicated their scenes with great emotional impact. Charley’s Aunt does not follow this tradition. Charley’s Aunt revels in the comic notion of a man being compelled to not only dress up like a woman, but act like one for personal gain. This play is more akin to classic films such as Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, and Mrs. Doubtfire than anything Shakespeare wrote
Charley’s Aunt tells the story of Jack and Charley, two Oxford University students who are hopelessly in love with two young women. Charley, gets word that his rich widowed aunt from Brazil, whom he has never met, is coming for a visit, which sparks an idea. She can act as chaperone that afternoon so the boys can woo the girls properly. However, they soon discover that Charley’s aunt has been delayed. At that moment, Lord Fancourt Babberley, another student and friend, enters the room, sparking another idea. They convince “Babbs” to dress up and pretend to be Charley’s aunt, allowing the boys to pursue their girls, all under the watchful eye of their “chaperone.” Thus begins scene after scene of mistaken identity, lost and returned love, and a bevy of hilarity when the guy playing a girl falls in love with a girl who thinks he is an old woman and another man wants to romance an assumed woman who actually is a guy dressed as a girl. Sound confusing? Maybe so, but it sure is funny.
Charley’s Aunt was first performed in February 1892 as a commissioned piece by a local fox hunting club which supported new works each year as part of the social festivities celebrating the beginning of the hunting season. The well received play soon moved to London where it ran for a then record-breaking 1,466 performances. During the play’s heyday, there were seven theatrical companies touring the show in England alone. The play soon moved across the ocean to Broadway where it ran for four years. Since that time, Charley’s Aunt has been revived many times, been produced as a motion picture, both silent and with sound, aired in an original television production, and even adapted into a musical.
After a seventeen-year vacation, Charley’s Aunt is returning to the Utah Shakespeare Festival. The 1997 production featured both Brian Vaughn and David Ivers, now Festival artistic directors. In 2015, Ivers returns to the popular and much loved play, this time to direct.
“This is a great, joyous comedy,” said Ivers. “Often people refer to it (I have myself) as an ‘old chestnut.’ Charley’s Aunt stands the test of time, and looking critically at the play, I find it’s brilliantly constructed. Charley’s Aunt is full of character driven action, full of optimism. I’ve acted in the play twice, so I know it requires rigor, detail, and specificity to make it appear easy, loose, and chaotic. As I have rediscovered the play again, this time with a director’s eye, I have found myself laughing out loud again; refreshed and invigorated by what it all has to say. “
Ivers argues that while some find Charley’s Aunt a typical piece of comedic theatre, the message of the play goes much deeper. “Anyone can and should find love in any circumstance, and sometimes, we will go to great lengths at the expense of a great many to shape our destinies. Once in a while, a small window of opportunity presents itself. . . . Are you going to jump through it with reckless abandon or shut it out? At its core, Charley’s Aunt allows us all an opportunity to vicariously answer that question for ourselves. Through this comedic vehicle, the audience is asked the question: How far are we willing to go for love?”
Ivers and the rest of the Utah Shakespeare Festival production team are committed to guide Charley’s Aunt from the page to the stage by finding, in Ivers’s words, “the most lovely and fitting context,” for the play to develop. The sets, costumes, props, lighting, and sound are being meticulously researched in an effort to transport the audience to 1892 Oxford University and all the charm and culture surrounding that period.
Speaking about his vision for Charley’s Aunt, Ivers commented, “I was so fortunate to be part of the Festival’s 1997 production, . . . a time when I, myself, was particularly optimistic, young, and ready for life’s adventure. . . . It’s gratifying to find the play again with all of its pure joy waiting to be revealed anew.”
There is a certain magic in revisiting old friends after some time has passed. We all age in different ways, and it can be inspiring to see how our old acquaintances have adapted and evolved through the changing times. It is the same with a work of literature, film, or drama except that the change occurs within us. We bring our new sensitivities, wisdom, and experience to the art we see. That is why the same Shakespeare play can be a transformative experience each time we see it. We are looking at it with new eyes and through a new lens. If you have visited Charley’s Aunt before, come back and see her again. If you have not met her yet, stop by for a chat and rest assured that you will never forget her. Just be sure you come on time and eat before you arrive. Should you feel you will need a throat lozenge, now would be a very good time to unwrap it.