Regional Reviews: San Diego
Also see Bill's reviews of A Doll's House, Part 2 and The Siegel
Any director of Travels with My Aunt has the difficult job of making the narrative feel realistic and true to the location, even with minimal staging. Fortunately, North Coast Rep Artistic Director David Ellenstein accomplishes that goal, especially as events expand in scope. With creative work from the design team and clever placement of his actors, he vividly presents diverse locations such as Buenos Aires, Rome, and the Orient Express. Marty Burnett's blue-sky set, Matt Novotny's lighting, and Aaron Rumley's projections add to the fun of the globetrotting journeys. Melanie Chen's use of music ranging from rock to instrumental selections always fit the various events that Henry experiences.
While the work of the crew deserves honorable mention, what really matters is the way the entertainers act out the plot. They are critical in turning Greene's book into live theatre. Wearing only dark clothing and bowler hats from Elisa Benzoni, James Saba, David McBean and Richard Baird all are Henry at various points in the evening. Each performer plays him with a straitlaced attitude while showing how he evolves from a boring man to a brave one. Saba also gets to be Augusta. Everything from his hand gestures to his chirpy voice makes the audience realize why others find her so charismatic. Benjamin Cole rounds out the cast portraying several comedic roles, and he works well with the other performers. Although a few of the actors seem to be in the process of getting used to Giles Havergal's narration heavy adaptation, the leads show their range in portraying several people. By having a few artists and using very few props from Andrea Gutierrez, Havergal demonstrates old-fashioned imagination. All the personalities that the four stars depict feel significant, but a few theatregoers might be uncomfortable watching the very white Baird as Augusta's black lover Wordsworth. To his credit, Baird turns him into a three-dimensional character and never resorts to stereotypical behavior.
Havergal and Greene's sense of humor works on a couple of levels. Laughs come from the way the men enjoyably switch back and forth between different parts. Instead of being just easy shtick, Saba, McBean, Baird and Cole treat each part with respect no matter how peculiar the person becomes. If Havergal decided to create a traditional version with a big cast and scenery, Travels with My Aunt would still be funny since Greene's writing features so much witty exchanges.
As it's easy to get lost in the story by watching the versatile players and the craft of the crew, many will view Greene's plot purely as light entertainment. However, those who look a little deeper should find themselves being moved by how the two main protagonists become closer. A good amount of the humor comes from how Augusta's blunt and honest behavior is so different from her reserved nephew. Even with their differences, they find themselves enjoying each other's company and provide support during tough times. Seeing Henry evolve and become more comfortable in a different personality is uplifting, as he demonstrates how people can change into a different and improved version of themselves.
Ellenstein's rendition works as a joyful love letter to storytelling and a dryly funny tale about a growing relationship. Henry and Augusta will teach you how to live an exciting life.
North Coast Repertory Theatre presents Travels with My Aunt through May 7, 2017. Performs Sundays through Saturdays at 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Suite D. Tickets start at $44.00 and can be purchased online at www.northcoastrep.org or by phone at 1-858-481-1055.