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Clockwise from Top Left) Matthew Amendt (Jack Chesney), Ben Mandelbaum (Charles Wykeham), Valeri Mudek (Kitty Verdun), John Skelley (Lord Fancourt Babberley) and Ashley Rose Montondo (Amy Spettigue) in the Guthrie Theater's production of Charley's Aunt. (Guthrie Theater photo)

There's life left yet in 'Charley's Aunt'

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MINNEAPOLIS -- Attending the venerable "Charley's Aunt," one of the Guthrie Theater's shows this holiday season, we found there's plenty of life in the old girl yet.

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First staged in 1892 in Victorian England, "Charley's Aunt" by Brandon Thomas has lived into its second century as a popular farce in regional and community theaters. It is being staged for the first time at the Guthrie, playing to mostly sold-out houses during its December-January run.

The play's main characters are two young Oxford University students, Jack and Charley (Matthew Amendt and Ben Mandelbaum), in love with Kitty and Amy, "the dearest girls on earth." Kitty and Amy (Valerie Mudek and Ashley Roe Montondo) need a chaperone, an unbreakable social rule for young women who must protect their reputations. Charley wants the responsibility to fall to his aunt, a rich widow from Brazil who is due to arrive on the next train. Since this is a farce, the audience knows before the characters do that the aunt will be detained and someone will have to concoct a loony scheme to replace her.

The replacement takes the form of their university classmate Lord Fancourt Babberly, nicknamed Babs (John Skelley), who drops by to borrow bottles of champagne. He already has a Whistler's Mother costume, which he plans to use in an amateur theatrical, when Jack and Charley coerce him into impersonating Charley's aunt.

While Jack and Charley conspire clumsily to get Kitty and Amy alone so each can propose marriage, Babs throws himself into the aunt's role, stealing kisses and hugs from the young women. The frustrated suitors, seething with anger at Babs' triumphant grins, cannot do anything except kick him in the shins when no one except the audience is looking. The actors' physical comedy delighted matinee goers.

After Babs' initial hesitation about helping his friends, he immerses himself in the role of the aunt. Racing about the stage in drag, he blurts out frequently that he is "Charley's aunt from Brazil where the nuts come from," a line which has become famous in theatrical lore.

Adding complications and humor to the story, Jack's father (Peter Thomson) and Kitty and Amy's guardian (Colin McPhillamy) hear of the Brazilian lady's fortune and compete strenuously for her affections.

Charley's real aunt (Sally Wingert) arrives in the second act. She recognizes what is going on and plays along by taking a different name. The high jinx are completed perfectly when Babs recognizes the aunt's traveling companion (Thallis Santesteban) as his long-lost love. Everyone finds the right mate as this happy, good-natured play ends.

A young cast of players catches the vibrant spirit of the farce. Amendt and Mandelbaum are energetic comedians while Mudek and Montondo simper gracefully. The show is all about the men, while the young women have the thankless task of trying to give their characters some depth. They get to wear stunning, ornate gowns while awaiting their marriage proposals.

The worldly valet (Charles Hubbell) has some of the best lines in the show and lets the audience know he is onto the silliness of his callow young employer.

Thomson and McPhillamy are perfect Victorian gentlemen, all bluster and officiousness, while the young people outwit them. Wingert, a superb actress in dozens of Guthrie productions, shines as the genuine aunt.

Director John Miller-Stephany, who also directed "Jane Eyre," "1776" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Guthrie, firmly controls this zany and satisfying version of "Charley's Aunt." Charming sets are the work of designer John Coyne.

"Charley's Aunt" continues through Jan. 15. For ticket information, phone 1-877-44STAGE; or go to www.guthrietheater.org.

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