Brandon Thomas’ 1892 farce about Oxford undergraduate gents who “will get up to anything” sits firmly in the public consciousness, even though it is seldom performed. Many theatergoers have a sense that a young man dresses up in barely successful drag as another young man’s aunt and mayhem ensues. Our subconscious fills in the basic expectations: Oscar Wilde tells us that in these situations an aunt has power over who can be married to whom and mistaken identities will proliferate. “Tootsie” tells us that there’s bound to be an ill-advised marriage proposal thrown into the mix. This charming play offers all that and more. It deserves to be experienced in the flesh rather than simply as an academic study.
We have three chums: Jack, Charley and Lord Fancourt Babberly. Jack wants to marry Kitty but her guardian won’t hear of it. Charley wants to marry Amy but her uncle (same troublesome chap as Kitty’s nemesis) won’t hear of it. But Charley’s rich aunt (whom no one has met as she has been “in Brazil, where the nuts come from”) is due to arrive, and the boys contrive to get the girls alone and propose to them while uncle-guardian-nemesis is away. But then Charley’s aunt cables that she can’t arrive. As a chaperone is imperative in order for the girls to visit the boys in their rooms, Lord Fancourt Babberly, who is already in the process of getting done up in drag for a university theatrical, is pressed into service as the aunt. It doesn’t take a scholar to guess that the uncle-guardian-nemesis turns up sooner than expected and, as topsy-turvydom ensues, makes love to the “rich aunt.” Naturally, the real aunt is bound to show after everyone is at sixes and sevens. She quickly sums up the entire situation, yet no one knows who she is. There’s power for you!
Director Jack Dugan Carpenter’s mostly newly-graduated cast does a sparkling job, particularly after they relaxed into the evening. Garrett Wiegel (Jack) makes a charming study of a youngster looking for his place in affairs of both the heart and the world at large. Joshua Paul Wright (Charley) turns in a warmhearted second banana. Lizzie Williams (Kitty) simply glitters and it is easy to see why she has turned Jack starry-eyed. Stephanie Price (Amy) plays more grounded, while just as upside down for Charley, and makes a balance for the quartet of lovers.
Russ Gager (Brasset) is a delight as Jack’s much-abused, all-knowing man’s man. David R. Feiler makes a fine, fussy fellow as Jack’s father. Eric S. Prahl steams and struts and then turns amorous as the uncle-guardian-nemesis. Megan Peters is sweet as Ela Delahay. Valerie Gerlock as the actual Aunt Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez commands her every moment onstage.
Of course, the flashy part of Lord Fancourt Babberly rules the play, having been given every single right and opportunity for mugging, clowning, physical and vocal pyrotechnics. Sean Michael Barrett chews into the meal with relish. Underneath all of the lunacy, Barrett presents a character who is, at his core, the kindest (if yet unschooled) soul alive. This lets the audience relax and take in the beautiful garden’s fragrances. (Aaron Hunt)
Saint Sebastian Players, 1625 West Diversey, (773)404-7922, saintsebastianplayers.org, $18-$25. Through March 15.