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A timorous bit of travel

By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review

It’s not a long drive to North Coast Repertory Theatre where currently playing is a hilarious, tightly conceived trip around the world titled “Travels With My Aunt.”

Aunt Augusta has “brilliant” red hair, according to her nephew, Henry. Audiences hear this description but never really “see” the flamboyant septuagenarian in Graham Greene’s “Travels With My Aunt.”

(l to r) David McBean, Richard Baird, Benjamin Cole and James Saba in North County Rep’s enjoyable, “Travels With My Aunt” (Photo by Aaron Rumley)

Greene’s book was adapted for the stage by Giles Havergal and directed by David Ellenstein at North Coast Repertory Theatre, where Ellenstein is artistic director.

The production is seen through May 7 at the intimate Solana Beach theater. It’s a definite must-see for lovers of literature, spoken word and the actors involved, who are Richard Baird, Benjamin Cole, David McBean and James Saba.

One might ask, who plays Aunt Augusta?

The answer is everyone. And everyone plays all the others involved in telling the delightful tale of Henry, a newly retired 50-something banker who spends his days tending dahlias in his English garden.

Henry meets his Aunt Augusta for the first time at his mother’s funeral. Apparently, she is the black sheep of the family and we quickly discover why. Henry doesn’t know it, but Aunt Augusta plans to enlist him as her new travel companion. He quickly discovers how unconventional she is when he goes to tea at her flat and encounters Wordsworth, an enormous native of Sierra Leone, who calls Augusta his “baby girl” and confides that she loves to “jig-jig” with him (“No one is too old for jig-jig”).

Wordsworth, the redheaded aunt, and Henry are soon off with a suitcase of cash aboard the Orient Express, destination Istanbul. Henry is never certain where the money comes from (Augusta: “I am not interested in economy”) or just what Auntie is up to, but he — and we — suspect it is something nefarious that has to do with the love of Augusta’s life, one Mr. Visconti, a former associate of Mussolini.

All their travels concern catching up with Visconti, whom they finally meet in Paraguay.

Needless to say, Henry’s life is forever changed. To tell readers all the details would be to spoil the uproarious goings-on. The play is brilliantly cast and directed and the laughter and suspense never let up. Ellenstein serves up another winner.

It is great fun to see the identically clad actors (bowler hats are no hindrance!) switch characters right before one’s eyes. Before the evening is over, onlookers will swear to having seen a plethora of characters.

Baird’s unforgettable Wordsworth breaks this onlooker’s heart with his passion, dedication and sincerity. Saba’s Augusta is a lovable female mountebank. McBean’s interpretations of the many females encountered along the road are delicious. There are upwards of 20 characters. Cole is the facilitator, making needed accouterments appear and disappear on Marty Burnett’s amazingly utilitarian, yet celestial set.

Although certain roles are somewhat identified with certain actors, the switching off is continuous. At various times all play the mystified yet fascinated Henry, whose dahlias, we suspect, lie forlorn and wilted, ultimately abandoned for the excitement of life.

The ending of “Travels With My Aunt” may terrify staid audience members, but as is said, “Never assume yours is a better morality.”

We do, however, revel in the fact that the formerly timorous Henry has many delights before him.

—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. You can follow her blog at charlenecriticism.blogspot.com or reach her at charb81@gmail.com.

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