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West End’s ‘Travels With My Aunt’ ingenious, hilarious

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Graham Greene, one of the greatest English novelists of the 20th century, generally wrote novels of two kinds: one exploring faith and spirituality through a Catholic lens, and the other depicting the dark side of international politics and undercover operations.

“Travels With My Aunt” belongs to the latter kind, although it’s a great deal lighter in tone than the somber novels of espionage he is famous for. “Travels With My Aunt” is Greene’s only genuinely comic novel and was adapted into a play by Giles Havergal in 1989. This version is being presented in ingenious fashion by West End Productions.

Directors Cy and Jane Hoffman tell the story using only four actors, each of whom is attired in identical costume: black suit and bowler hat with red chrysanthemum in button hole in Act 1; white casual summer attire in Act 2 (the boutonniere remains, but the chrysanthemum has been exchanged for a suitably tropical red flower).

The two principal characters are Aunt Augusta and her nephew Henry, who are as unlike as two people can be. Augusta is a 75-year-old nonjudgmental freewheeling bohemian, a former prostitute with a black lover from Sierra Leone named Wordsworth, who is madly in love with her; she, however, is in love with an Italian criminal and Nazi collaborator named Visconti. Her nephew is a retired banker who has lived a completely unadventurous life. The two meet for the first time at Henry’s mother’s funeral, and before long are traveling to Istanbul.

In a brilliant casting move, Aunt Augusta is played by Kenneth Ansloan, Albuquerque’s most beloved female impersonator. The other three actors – Tim MacAlpine, Harry Zimmerman and Colleen Neary McClure – alternate playing Henry and impersonate the many other characters the two meet along the way. Each actor is superb.

Wordsworth turns out to be as vital a character as Henry and his aunt, and Zimmerman plays the African with comic panache and great sympathy. Zimmerman also plays Visconti, the charming rogue Aunt Augusta has given her heart to. All four actors play characters of both sexes at one time or another; even Ansloan – who otherwise plays only Aunt Augusta – a bit incongruously plays Henry toward the end of the show.

McClure, who joined the cast late and miraculously manages to keep pace with the other three actors, is hilarious as a dog named Wolf and as a pot-smoking American hippie named Tooley (who introduces the staid banker Henry to a new kind of cigarette on the train to Istanbul; Henry has no idea, at first, that he is smoking pot). Later, McClure will play Tooley’s father, a CIA agent in South America looking for Visconti.

The show is episodic, moving quickly from one location to another, and telling the story simply without costume and set changes is a brilliant device.

“Travels With My Aunt” is playing through March 17 at the VSA North Fourth Art Center, 4904 Fourth NW. Go to westendproductions.org or call 404-8462 for reservations.

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