A Fine Farce

The Actors' Summit warms up a tasty chestnut in Charley's Aunt.

The Actors' Summit shares its digs in tony downtown Hudson with an antiques gallery, a shrine to old-time charm crammed with floral-print postcards and milk-glass candy dishes. Currently on view in the theater across the hall is an antique every bit as quaint, yet somehow still fresh: Charley's Aunt. Relying on the timeless comic device of a gent forced to masquerade as a lady, this late-19th-century farce is a delightful synergy of oldfangled wit, taut staging, and eye-catching visuals -- including a pretty set lorded over by a portrait of Will Shakespeare, himself a great champion of the sexquerade.

The plot is as fluffy as meringue. Charley and Jack are two lovesick lads, debating how best to profess their tender feelings to the respective objects of their affection, Amy and Kitty. Ah, but how to express their sentiments appropriately in that too-proper era of corsets and high tea? A chaperone is required, and when Charley's Aunt Donna Lucia, who was to fulfill that role, fails to show up on time for a scheduled visit, a substitute is found: Charley and Jack's chum Lord Fancourt "Babbs" Babberly will impersonate the aunt and take on the role of chaperone. "I'm from Brazil," trills Babbs. "Where the nuts come from."

To complicate matters, like many a theatrically hatched cross-dresser before her, the black taffeta-clad ersatz Donna Lucia attracts a couple of suitors of her own. Babbs must dodge their advances while maintaining the ruse, which becomes exceptionally difficult when the real Donna Lucia does turn up -- with Babbs's own long-lost love interest in tow. It should come as no surprise that, by the end, the various maneuverings and misunderstandings have been neatly repackaged in a heart-shaped box, tied up with a big satin bow.

The crew at Actors' Summit has done a crackerjack job of animating this comic warhorse, making it well worth the trek to Hudson, even if you know Charley's Aunt (or its musical version, Where's Charley?) from its countless incarnations in community theaters and high school auditoriums, or you're familiar with the most famous film version, which featured the deliciously dry Jack Benny in petticoats for the title role.

The young players in this production provide the decorous yet hormone-driven fuel for the farce. Jack Fairbairn makes for a sassy Jack, and Thomas R. Cummings is fine as the hapless Charley. A wee bit hammy, but effective overall is Tim Keo as the star-crossed cross-dresser Babbs; clearly, the actor is having big fun taking the audience along for the wild ride. Alisa Mae and Diane Mull hit the right pitch as cookie-cutter-pretty love interests Amy and Kitty, and Sasha Thackaberry contributes otherworldly grace to the role of Babbs's girl Ella.

Nor is there a weak link to be found among Charley's more seasoned board-treaders. Paula Kline-Messner brings a Dolly Levi-esque bon vivant sensibility to the role of the real Aunt Donna Lucia, while Tom Stephan and Frank Jackman turn in solid performances as misled suitors Sir Francis Chesney and Stephen Spettigue. Although not a featured player, Robert Snook is a true pleasure to watch as Brasset the butler.

Add to this tight, cutie-pie staging and costumes that are lovingly detailed to such a degree they dazzle, and you have a feast for the senses and a rollicking old-time good time at the theater.