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


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.

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