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St. Louis by Richard Green

Travels With My Aunt
Act Inc, Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre

Travels With My Aunt
Jake Ferree, Paul Cereghino, Michael Juncal and Jonathon Morgan
Don't let that photograph fool you. They all look so polite and reserved, don't they? While we're on the subject, don't let any photograph fool you, as this raucous, fantastical comedy tells us again and again. Appearances are inclined to deceive.

And if you ever saw the 1972 Maggie Smith motion picture, don't let that fool you either. You might end up thinking the stage version of Graham Greene's novel would be equally dry and similarly sketchy on details. But nothing could be further from the truth (except, possibly, for all the breathless explanations of this new production's Aunt Augusta herself, played with wild-eyed camp and a calculated, mysterious charm by Paul Cereghino). This is a full-blooded, flat-out, go-for-broke masterpiece.

This version, adapted by Giles Havergal and directed with outrageous truthfulness and straight-faced perjury by Emily Jones, is a brilliant psychological farce (in terms of its effect and implications), a jaw-dropping comedy, and a very nearly family-friendly fable, to boot. The stylishly delivered story involves the kind of fraud that attracts Interpol or the CIA, or the local police, or even all three at once. And, in the end, it sets the bar impossibly high for every other play this summer.

It never once asks you to adore it, as you'll have grown to expect from most summer fare—though Aunt Augusta herself seems pretty well-schooled in that kind of sly, ingratiating appeal. And, really, after the police make their last visit, isn't it just the madcap tale of a boy's heartfelt search for a mother-figure? A "globe-trotting, suitcase-full-of-cash, with too many suspicious friends" mother-figure? Well, thanks to the beautiful writing, yes, it actually is.

Four young actors play different sides of the same leading man: an earnest, naive bank manager who took early retirement, and meets up with his somewhat aged but colorful maiden aunt at a funeral. Stacks of wigs and hats and scarves for each of the men give them passage plenty of other personas as well. And thanks to Graham Greene and the adaptation by Mr. Havergal (and the boundless energy of these four young men), any one of those fictional people would probably be worthy of an entire play themselves. Yes, it is wildly campy here and there, but it's all so beautifully written and directed that we are carried far, far away, and a sense of poetic searching is right out there on stage, plain as day, whenever the frantic comedy takes a well-deserved rest. I guess what I'm trying to say is that, out of "ten stars," this one gets about a million.

Mr. Cereghino carries a lot of the flouncy weight of the show with that hennaed wig and madcap manner that sparked right out his fingertips on opening night, but the other three actors are unstoppable and amazing, too. Jake Ferree plays a wild assortment of rubber-faced, very particularly voiced and physicalized "characters"—enough to fill a Dickens novel. Michael Juncal plays his share too, ranging from a frightening but adoring African manservant to a blushing 14-year old Paraguayan schoolgirl, all with equally unbridled charm. And Jonathan Morgan, who may seem the most fresh-faced of them all, throws his dewy-eyed good looks straight into the wood-chipper when he slips into the role of a Nazi collaborator on the run, showing lots of wry humor as a potential spouse for Henry in South Africa. There are also a surprising number of policemen involved, of every possible description, for reasons that I'd rather not go into.

There's a funny story, told to me by unofficial producer Eleanor Mullin at intermission, that Act Inc had expected to cast actors in their forties or fifties in the four roles—but that all four of those older performers went and tried out for a different show which, very sadly, ended up being cancelled just a few weeks ago. So, by an unexpected stroke of luck, we get a young and energetic Ferrari of a show, from a theater group better known for stories of the kindly, comfy old Rolls Royce variety. Make sure your neck restraints are locked firmly in place, to prevent whiplash until you exit the ride.

Skips the weekend of June 8-10 on a repertory schedule, but runs three nights and one day, 6/14-17, 2012, at the black-box theater at Fontbonne University. Enter into the parking lot along Big Bend Blvd., between Forest Park Parkway and Clayton Road, half a block south of Wydown Blvd. and the Washington University campus. For more information visit them online at www.actinc.biz or call (314) 725-9108.

Cast
Paul Cereghino: Henry Pauling and Aunt Augusta
Michael Juncal: Henry Pauling, Wordsworth, Italian Girl, Frau General, Hakim, Policeman, Spanish Gentleman, Bodyguard
Jake Ferree: Henry Pauling, Taxi Driver, Uncle Jo, Tooley, Wolfhound, Receptionist, Miss Patterson, and O'Toole
Jonathon Morgan: Henry Pulling, Richard Pulling, Vicar, Girl in Jodhpurs, Miss Keene, Sparrow, and Visconti

Technical Staff
Director: Emily Jones
Stage Manager: Sarah Thompson
Lighting Designer: Michael Sullivan
Costume Designer: Katie Donovan
Properties Mistress: Liz Hopefl
Sound Designer: Sarah Thompson
Crew: Christopher Edward Vaught, Brad Werkmeister


Photo by John C. Lamb


-- Richard T. Green

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