Mistaken identity

Adam Whitney gets big laughs in drag in Charley’s Aunt

The cast of <i>Charley’s Aunt </i>poses backstage.

The cast of Charley’s Aunt poses backstage.

Photo by David Robert

Rated 4.0

Right or wrong, there must be something inherently funny about guys in drag. The Riverfront Theatre has capitalized on this concept beautifully with its first-ever production, Charley’s Aunt, and the success of this play bodes very well for the future of director/producer Bob Barsanti’s new theater company.

Charley’s Aunt is a romantic farce, which was first produced in England in 1892. Jack Chesney (an impressive Dory Rice) and Charley Wykeham (Jaimi Ficco) are college students from wealthy families. They wish to woo Kitty Verdun (Mariel Alyssa) and Amy Spettigue (Alicia Karau), respectively, but in the good old days of Victorian England, young men and women could not meet without a chaperone.

That chaperone is promised in the form of Charley’s aunt, Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez (Linda Alexander), but she has postponed her visit, and the boys are in a panic. They need a woman, and now, before the girls leave for a trip to Scotland.

Lord Fancourt Babberly, played spectacularly by Adam Whitney, comes to the reluctant rescue. Babs, as they call him, was recently cast as an old woman in a play, and he just happens to have the perfect costume and make-up to play the aging aunt. Perfect, that is, if Charley’s aunt were a frighteningly outlandish drag queen who frequents the same salon as Cruella De Vil.

Babs also lacks the perfect decorum they desire, and he spends most of his time trying to snuggle up to the girls. That is, until Jack’s father (Lloyd Steinman) and Amy’s uncle (George Randolph) arrive and proceed to fight bitterly for the affections of the imposter aunt. Soon, Babs is running himself ragged trying to simultaneously fend off the advances of elderly gentlemen and secure permission for the two young couples to marry. All is going well—as well as can be expected, at least—until the real Donna Lucia shows up.

Barsanti’s cast pulls this play off magnificently, with only a few minor mishaps and miscues that really don’t take away from the performance. Dory Rice is especially good as the lovesick, frantic Jack, and his English accent is damn near perfect, as far as my ears can tell.

But the real star of the show is Adam Whitney as the fake aunt, an over-the-top role he seems born to play. His expressive face and wildly modulating voice compete only with his flailing limbs for attention, and his knack for landing a punch line is uncanny. Whitney throws his whole body into the physical comedy of the play, prompting winces of sympathetic pain even as I laughed until my stomach hurt.

In fact, one of my few complaints about the play was that those of us in the front row were a little too close to the action. When Whitney came barreling by, his skirts flying, I thought he might accidentally take my head off in the process. When he suddenly screamed, just a few short feet in front of me, he nearly scared me out of my seat.

But for those in the audience relaxing in the cushy movie theater seats—culled from the now-closed Century theater near the Peppermill—the whole experience seemed to be nothing but a blast. It was so funny, in fact, that the audience was often laughing over the dialogue. Again, just a small complaint: Cast members should relish the laughs they get, savor them until they’ve died down a bit, and then move on with the dialogue. As the saying goes, comedy is all about timing.

But overwhelmingly, Charley’s Aunt is a smashing success for the Riverfront Theatre, and the sold-out performance Saturday night leads me to believe that the company has made more than a few new fans.