"Travels With My Aunt" at Cinnabar Theater, Petaluma CA

“Travels With My Aunt” At Cinnabar Theater
Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
Photo of (from left) Benjamin Privitt, Kalli Jonsson and Floyd Harden by Eric Chazankin

Sometimes silliness is all we crave, and there’s enough pure silliness in Cinnabar Theater’s “Travels With My Aunt” to satisfy the biggest appetite. But it also comes with large helpings of comedy, suspense, pathos and drama. Combine all this with a stimulating workout of the imagination and you are left refreshed, invigorated and delighted – and not one pound heavier!

The play is based on Graham Greene’s 1969 novel, adapted for the stage by Scottish writer Giles Havergal. It had its world premiere in Scotland in 1989, and its American debut came in 1995 in New York City. The story centers on retired bank manager Henry Pulling, a static character, bound by habit, about as interesting as a boiled potato. His mother’s funeral offers him a break from his routine, and it is here he meets 75-year-old Aunt Augusta, his mother’s audacious sister who has a real zest for living, damn the consequences. She invites him to join her on an impetuous whirlwind tour of the world, and the adventure is launched like a rocket.

The intriguing device which propels the story is taken from theatre’s very foundation: all roles are performed by males. In Cinnabar’s production, the cast consists of four men, three of whom play an assortment of eccentric characters who weave in and out of the story like multi-colored threads in a bizarre tapestry. Benjamin Privitt is the only actor with a single role, that of Henry Pulling. Kalli Jonsson has the second lead as Aunt Augusta, and together with Floyd Harden and Richard Rossi, they can be seen wandering offstage only to re-emerge as CIA operatives, waiters, thugs, detectives, taxi drivers, teenage runaway hippie girls and vampy fortune tellers. All of these amazing transformations are accomplished without a single costume change, with the possible exception of an adaptable red shawl.

It is here that the actors display tremendous skill and versatility, transformed by dead-on comic timing and compelling empathy. And it is here that the audience is transformed as well: first giggling, then attentive, then engrossed; amused and touched, completely accepting. A cast with lesser skills would have reduced the performance to a mere curiosity. Kalli Jonsson as Aunt Augusta deserves special praise for his ability to make the audience see the spicy, septuagenarian lady with a scandal-ridden past who has great affection for her nephew Henry. (All that may be needed is for him to ramp up the physicality of an elder lady a bit more.) Benjamin Privitt as the nephew comes off as suitably straitlaced, someone in dire need of excitement, one whose life may end up having meaning and purpose after all. Richard Rossi shines in his multiple roles, especially as the African manservant Wordsworth and as the Italian gangster Visconti. Floyd Harden is also wonderful in his many roles, both male and female.

Director Ken Ruta, who appeared in the ACT production in San Francisco, has taken his actors to a place many only hope for – a place where the audience must deny what their eyes see, and believe instead what the actor believes. Ruta has controlled the space in which his actors move, through simple staging, the use of silhouettes behind a screen, and basic set pieces which serve many functions as the scenes require.

Cinnabar’s “Travels With My Aunt” is an adventure for the imagination, a flight of fancy that tickles the funny bone and touches the heart. And yes, it has a happy ending! What more could one ask of a night out?

When: Performances September 24 – October 17, 2010
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $15 to $25
Location: Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. North, Petaluma CA
Phone: 707-763-8920
Website: www.cinnabartheater.org