The line between theater and life is very fine in Michael Fry's clever new stage adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma. Funnier than the lifelessly accurate 1943 Gordon Glennon adaptation and more accurate than the funny Alicia Silverstone vehicle Clueless, Fry's Emma brings Austen's three-volume masterwork down to a manageable size and keeps it moving at a brisk clip.
Suggested by some as the predecessor to today's vast wave of "chick lit" -- thin novels with bright covers usually chronicling the struggle of hip single girls with fancy publishing jobs to pick the right shoes and husbands -- Austen did in fact write about young women trying to make a place for themselves in a changing world by marrying well. But she did it slyly, using her novels to explore the restrictiveness of Regency-era British society, where women had few other options but to marry. She also wrote incisively about class, and that comes through strongly in Fry's gloss, where five contemporary young people -- apparently somewhere between late high school and college -- decide to while away an afternoon playing out the beloved story of Emma, a charming meddler who fancies herself a matchmaker but has no idea of the true havoc she wreaks.
According to the program, this version is set in contemporary suburban Britain, but there's a soft-focus filter. The attic is filled with snowshoes and old trunks, not abandoned treadmills or the boxes from electronic equipment, and the girls giggle innocently about which boy they might get to kiss. For those not familiar with the original, this version requires a bit of concentration, a situation compounded by the fact that there are five actors playing nineteen characters. Helpfully, there's an illustrated chart in the program. It's also useful because some of the characters are easier to distinguish than others through the actors' efforts -- for example, actor David Mendelsohn as Mr. Elton is distinct from Mendelsohn as Mr. Martin, while it's a little hard to tell the difference between Joe Wyka as Mr. Weston and Wyka as Mr. Knightley. Of course, Mendelsohn wears distinct coats as each character, but he also has clearly varied physical and vocal representations (especially his oily Mr. Elton), while Wyka is not as compartmentalized (although he is most distinct, and funny, as the doddering Mrs. Bates). Wyka's base character, Robert, appears to have presented a casting challenge: he's in his early twenties at best, yet the two major characters he plays are both in their mid-thirties. Director Jeffrey Bihr went ahead with an actor who looked older, which sets up a slight cognitive dissonance.
The women have more luck, tossing around wigs and dressing in coats and scarves. Lindsay Benner as Elizabeth is particularly funny as Emma's father Mr. Woodhouse. "Why do I always have to play the boys?" Elizabeth whines, but Benner does a great monkey face for the cantankerous patriarch. Meanwhile Kathleen Dobbs (Jane) is darling as Harriet, the hapless naïf Emma takes under her wing and gives bad advice to. Dobbs' silly piled-up blonde wig, wide smile, and turned-up nose add up to something you might find in fantasy illustrator Brian Froud's series of books on pressed fairies. Pretty without being vain about it, self-assured, and often completely wrong about what's going on; Lauren Grace as Sarah as Emma suits Austen's description perfectly, and some of the play's truest moments are hers. Accused of being beastly to Miss Bates by Mr. Knightley, Grace's Emma is truly chastened and heartsick, and Grace handles Emma's epiphany about her meddling with understated power.
The overall effect is charming, if a bit slight. The play could do with less unbelievable simpering, but the subtext around class is finely drawn, and it's a loving and clever tribute to the original.
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