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‘Charley’s Aunt’ brings vintage comedy to Engle Lane

In directing a play first produced in 1892, Bill Jankowski decided to make it as authentic as possible. 

“We’re trying to do it the way they did it then,” the Ottawa resident said about “Charley’s Aunt,” the upcoming Community Players of Streator (also known as Engle Lane) comedy debuting Sunday, Sept. 8.

Back then, he said, shows were limited to the amount of actors and stagehands, and the onstage footlights were candles, rather than the electric lights used today. 

“We wanted to keep it as much as we could in the 1890s. We couldn’t use candles. The fire marshal wouldn’t like that,” Jankowski said.

In an era of portable sets, “Charley’s Aunt” will utilize three sets all onstage at once.

“They’ll see something very different. It’s like going back in time,” Jankowski said. “(And) it’s one of the funniest shows you will see.”

“And it’s unique to our audience,” said La Salle’s Maggie Frost, the play’s assistant director and Charley’s aunt herself.

Written by Brandon Thomas, the 127-year-old comedy takes place at England’s Oxford University, where students Charley (played by J.C. Klein, of Flanagan) and Jack (Streator’s Nicholas Harcar) are in love, respectively, with Amy (Abbie Lesman, of Streator) and Kitty (Alisha Prunty, of Pontiac).

Charley and Jack need help from Donna Lucia D’Alvarez, Charley’s aunt/millionaire widow, to declare their love to the women.

“In those days, young ladies and young men weren’t even supposed to be in the same room together without a chaperone,” Frost said.

Yet the aunt doesn’t show up when needed, so the boys enlist fellow student Lord Fancourt “Babbs” Babberley (played by Ottawa’s Nik Frig) to play Donna, which he does, until the real Donna shows up.

“Charley’s Aunt” is an old play, but the concept of a man playing a woman is even older. Frig said Lord Fancourt plays a women, but not very well.

“This is played for laughs because he’s definitely not a woman. He struggles throughout to keep up his pretenses in order to help his friends,” he said. “He overblows it because he doesn’t know what he is doing. He’s thrown into it.”

Cast members have had to work to use British accents as well as unfamiliar language.

“It’s definitely unique. There are phrases and words that are completely bizarre,” Prunty said.

Klein, at age 18, is not used to such language.

"I’ve had to watch a few random British shows, like ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Downton Abbey,’ to get the accent down,” he said.

Klein and Prunty, along with Joe Nolan, of Pontiac, are three Livingston County residents performing for the first time at Engle Lane.

Purity and Klein acted together in Pontiac for the Vermillion Players production of “Guys and Dolls.” She encouraged him to audition for “Charley’s Aunt.”

“I looked around for theaters within driving distance and found Engle Lane,” Prunty said.

“It’s been amazing. The whole theater is amazing. I’ve never worked in one like this before,” said Klein, a 2019 Flanagan-Cornell High School graduate.

Additional cast members include Streator residents Chloe Claybino, Scott Sibert and Rob Tyne.

Frost was drawn to the play because it never has been staged by any area theater group.

“I haven’t had much experience in this kind of farce. I think it’s really incredible to do this, especially for our young actors,” she said.

Other than Shakespeare, “Charley’s Aunt” will be about as old a play as a young actor can experience. 

Go Info

What: “Charley’s Aunt,” a Community Players of Streator comedy.

When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8; 7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 9, through Saturday, Sept. 14.

Where: William C. Schiffbauer Center for the Performing Arts at Engle Lane, 1012 Columbus Road, Streator.

How: Ticket information is available by calling 815-672-3584 or at englelane.org.

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