THEATER | At the Guthrie Theater, “Charley’s Aunt” is a thuddingly non-farcical farce

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I’m going to say something here that’s probably going to get me into trouble. It has to do with the Guthrie Theater, and some thoughts that came up for me while watching their production of Charley’s Aunt.

Now, I realize that I’m probably more critical of the Guthrie than I am of other theaters in town. Because it’s the biggest, because it has such a seminal history, I have higher expectations for the Guthrie’s productions than for smaller, less well-funded theaters. Perhaps that’s unfair. But I guess my feeling is that for the price of the ticket, the Guthrie can stand some criticism. 

The particular thing I have to say is about the use of current students and/or graduates of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater B.F.A. Actor Training Program. I have nothing against the program. I think it’s a brilliant idea to pair the two institutions. Certainly it’s great for the students to be able to have that experience: both training with Guthrie actors and having performance opportunities. 

My grievance has to do with the level and quantity of those performance experiences. This is not true for every Guthrie show, but often enough the Guthrie will fill a cast with these young actors who have either recently gone through the program or are still in it—and I think that’s to the detriment of the audience.

The cynic in me thinks the reason for this practice is that it bodes well for the program if they can show that for the price of tuition, prospective students may have the chance to grace the Guthrie stage.

John Skelley, who plays Babberly, the character who dresses up as “Charley’s Aunt,” at least seemed to be having fun with his role—which counts for a lot, though some of his bits were rather clichéd (probably director John Miller-Stephany’s fault, but I’ll get to that later) and Matthew Amendt at least had some stage presence, though he was pretty stiff. The others—well, there was a complete lack of energy, a stifled repression about their performances that did not have to do with the play’s Victorian setting but rather, it seemed, a discomfort with being on stage. 

I realize it’s tough for the actresses portraying female characters in this show: they don’t have many lines and are pretty much written as walking set pieces, but even with what they had, it was as if the actresses had no idea who their characters were supposed to be. Ashley Rose Montondo, who had the larger of the young female roles, showed no indication of even liking her romantic counterpart, and though the character is written with a sense of humor, her timing was so off that she missed all of the jokes.

A lot of the blame goes to Miller-Stephany, who has made this “farce” so non-farcical that it’s like watching a tutorial on how make a farce unfunny. All of the physical comedy bits are so contrived and unimaginative that it’s unbelievable that the Guthrie would even allow the public to see them. Even the chase scenes seemed like they were phoned in, and the clowning bits were enacted with such laborious effort that I really felt sorry for the actors.

The one saving grace of the whole production is the marvelous Sally Wingert, who unfortunately doesn’t show up until after the intermission. It’s such a relief to watch someone who actually knows what she’s doing.

The Twin Cities are rich with wonderful talent. Maybe it’s time to look elsewhere for casting. I think the Guthrie’s audiences deserve it.

This production is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you’ll know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.

7 thoughts on “THEATER | At the Guthrie Theater, “Charley’s Aunt” is a thuddingly non-farcical farce

  1. I have never read a review of a Guthrie show like this one, that has the guts to really criticize a show and the policies of the theater. 

    I haven’t seen the show, so I don’t know if I agree with Ms. Regan or not about it, but its clear she isn’t afraid to say what she means.

    I applaud Ms. Regan for telling the Guthrie to look elsewhere besides the actors its already cast, NYC/London, and the U’s BFA program for talent.  I see nothing offensive or wrong with saying that. There are some talented people out there who deserve to be seen, recognized, and give a shot at performing on the Guthries stages who shouldn’t have to pay for the BFA program or try to call in to the one phone line they have open for a few hours to get in to the open call they have once a year to do a 2 minute audition.  Are Guthrie directors seeing shows outside The Jungle or a few other selected stages?  Did anyone there go see THE RAVAGERS or CRUMBLE, LAY ME DOWN JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE, the 2 best shows I have seen this year?  If they had, they would have seen some amazing talent that deserves a real chance to work on the Guthrie stages.

  2. Thank you for having the guts to say what no one else has the courage to.  It is a real shame the Guthrie does not support up-and-coming local talent more.

  3. While I also applaud your tenacity, I find your argument against the use of BFA students in Guthrie productions uninformed and offensive. As an avid viewer of theater in both Minneapolis and Saint Paul for several years I have seen many talented young actors but few with the skill development a four year conservatory style program, like the uofm/Guthrie program, offers.

    I totally agree with your review of the play- it was NOT a strong production.

    However, there is certainly not a overwhelming number of 23 year old actors who could handle the Guthrie stage waiting around in the Twin Cities. If there where, I’m sure Miller-Stephany, who sees more theater in this city than believed humanly possible, would have seen them and cast them. The BFA program provides a pool of young actors who have not only been trained ON the Guthrie Stage but have also trained on the Globe Stage and have experience and training that the remaining pool of twenty-something actors simply don’t have yet. They might not be better actors, but they are the actors suited for the job- a decision that can only be made by the theater producing the work, not the public.

    I would encourage you to think about what this review is serving. If your goal was to have as many people read your article and talk about it- then you are successful (extreme and incendiary claims are the easiest way to spark controversy). If your goal was to encourage new theater goers to take a leap and see a play, then you have failed. The public does not need another reason to ignore theater, but you have certainly given them one.

  4. I am not a theater critic, but I did see this production of Charley’s Aunt on opening night and found it very entertaining.  I laughed and cried and look forward to seeing it again.  Contrary to Ms. Regan’s review, the scenic design was a very important aspect of the show that received its own applause from the audience after many of the scene changes.  This should have been mentioned in Ms. Regan’s less-than-comprehensive critique.

    Furthermore, I am not an actor nor director, but casting U of MN/Guthrie Theater BFA undergraduate students and alumni to play Oxford students (Charles Wykeham, Jack Chesney, Lord Fancourt Babberley, and the two young ladies they are in love with) seems like a perfectly logical and well justified artistic choice to me.  The Guthrie is clearly dedicated to advancing education in the arts and their investments are putting Minneapolis on the map as a formidable artistic community.  Their efforts should be applauded instead of being boycotted as Ms. Regan insinuates.

    As a former high school and college music professor, I cannot comprehend how Ms. Regan, who ” teaches theater to young students around the Twin Cities metro area in her other life”, could write such disparaging comments about young artists.  Simply appalling.

  5. On a recent trip to MInneapolis, I was invited to see the Guthrie’s production of Charley’s Aunt.  I, along with the rest of the audience, thought that it was funny, beautifully cast and professionally executed. I am amazed at the local reviews of the show and not sure of the nature of the criticism.  In my experience, all respected artistic institutions are delighted to showcase their talented grads by featuring them in exhibits and local productions when possible.  This makes perfect sense!!  Cudos to the Guthrie for a delightful production!

  6. “If your goal was to encourage new theater goers to take a leap and see a play, then you have failed.”

    What about this instead: “If your goal was to discourage new theater goers from seeing this poorly acted and staged play that costs quite a bit to see so that they would spend their money seeing another, better play instead, then you succeeded.”

    What the critic provides is certainly public discourse about art but they also, in the end, tell us when they think something is a lemon and best avoided.

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