“I am going to make a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”
Said Jane Austen about Emma , the heroine and namesake, of her last novel to be published in her life-time. Opening this weekend, Book-It Repertory Theatre, produced a narrative theatre version of Emma, whose audience expressed their amusement so vociferously Jane Austen might have thought it vulgar.
Published in 1815, that is to say the year Napoleon was finally sent into exile, when the Bourbon dynasty was restored in France, a highly decadent Prince Regent was reigning in England, and the British Isles were in the beginning of one of the most significant changes in its history: the Industrial Revolution.
However, in Emma, these great historical events are not even mentioned. The plot, like all of Austen’s novels revolves around the love permutations of eight individuals who fall in and out of love, almost get engaged a few times to unsuitable suitors and then wind up engaged to appropriate mates. All the while the reader is treated to psychological insights, social history and perhaps the wittiest prose ever written in the English language.
Unlike the heroines in her other novels, who must marry in order to maintain or elevate their social and economic status, Emma Woodhouse, has none of these problems, which actually is her problem. At 22, she has everything: birth, breeding, talents, looks, intelligence, a dominant position in her father’s household (no mother around to compete with) and is the daughter of the “Lord of the Manor” in a small town. Her biggest advantage is that she has no brothers, or other inconvenient male relatives to inherit the estate, and a dowry of £30,000. ($ 2.6 million in inflation adjusted dollars)
In modern terms what she lacks is “a life”. There isn’t anything substantial to occupy her time, since unlike Jane Austen herself, she has no real passion or drive to direct her many talents towards something useful. Instead, she takes up matchmaking and since her adolescent years were not humbling, she does it with all the arrogance, ignorance and hubris of a 14 year old.
During the ensuing bedlam, she almost ruins the chances of her best friend, Harriet, of ever marrying decently, gets a proposal from a social climber, becomes the diversion for a couple hiding their engagement, and is totally blind to her profound attachment to the most suitable man for her to marry: her sister’s brother-in-law and neighboring land-owner, the upright Mr. Knightly.
Along the way we see the full range of Austen’s social hierarchy: The newly rich and incredibly vulgar Mrs. Elton, played in an exquisitely repulsive manner by Christine Marie Brown, the eccentric well-breed self-centered, generally harmless but highly entertaining Mr. Woodhouse played to perfection by Brian Thompson. Then there is the Mr. Right, Jane Austen herself never found, Mr. Knightly the perfect example of Tory manhood; landed, morally upright, straight forward, compassionate, well-bred while still retaining his masculinity and endowed with understated authority.
Without being an overt feminist, Austen depicted the plight of vulnerable women in three characters: There is the pathetic ridiculous genteel spinster Miss Bates, the daughter of the former rector of the village, who could have been Austen herself, Although Miss Bates has a little bit of money, she subsists socially and economically “on the kindness of others”.
Then there is Miss Bates’ niece, Jane Fairfax, played superbly by Sara Porkalob, who had everything going for her, splendid looks, extreme talent, discipline, sense and compassion, but has difficulty on the marriage market simply because of a lack of fortune. Her future looks bleak and she will have to go into the “slave trade” that is to say, the governess racket, as it is referred to in the book.
Then, of course there is the delightful Harriet Smith played with great amusement by Meme Garcia, the “natural daughter” that is to say, the illegitimate offspring of someone respectable enough to want it hidden, who, as a result, cannot marry a gentleman. However she is rescued from the fringes of society by being beautiful and having a good temper. In short, through fiction, the reader learns more about class structure than all the statistics social historians can throw at you.
Often considered the first mystery novel in English, many of the characters hide their intentions and love interests from the prying eyes of the tight-knit community. Emma herself, is blinded by appearances and is especially blinded by the mechanism of her own heart. It is also a Bildungsroman, in that through her disastrous matchmaking, she takes a stumble or two, is humbled and at the finale, becomes mature enough to enter adulthood.Since it does not have the racy dialogue of Pride and Prejudice, it is perhaps the most difficult of all the Austen novels to adapt to narrative theatre. There is also a lot of inner reflection, much of the action takes place off stage and the romantic intentions of some of the characters are hidden like governmental secrets. And it is extremely long.
However, Seattle playwright Rachel Atkins adroitly managed what seemed like an Augean task of condensing this novel into two and a half hours without missing anything and making it comprehensible even to “Austen virgins”. Since I have read Emma approximately 30 times and even named my cat after Emma Woodhouse, I wanted a second opinion, so I consulted the only female friend I knew, who had never read any Jane Austen, who said that she found it perfectly understandable.
Another potential difficulty of adopting any Austen novel is that there are so many different scenes, many of them outdoors, as the young ladies go for walks among the hedgerows. To deal with the multiple set changes and outdoor settings, set designer Andrea Bryn-Bush designed a simple set depicting the back garden and terrace of a country house with several doors into the house. It served the complicated set changes extremely well and reproduced the Country house atmosphere splendidly.
Director Carol Roscoe was able to change set pieces swiftly, condense scenes and information. Perhaps the most interesting and creative touch, was how the director made the character’s musings come alive. Several “scenes” which are narrated second hand or are only part of Emma’s imagination, were acted out on stage, as Emma narrated them, which was a brilliant touch. Had the director not chosen to do this, the audience may have become bored with excessive verbal recounting or if you didn’t know the novel very well, the plot would have been more difficult to follow. It also added an unparalleled level of humor as the actors milked it for every milliliter of comedy.
Laura Ferri’s dance choreography, complimented by Robertson Witmer’s Sound Design, was one of the highlights of the evening. The actors performed some very intricate Regency dancing to exquisite music. Jocelyn Fowler’s costumes, particularly those worn by Sylvie Davidson as Emma, were beautiful, authentic looking and could be changed quickly.
The flaw in the production was that the accents of the cast, except for Sara Porkalob, were problematic. A big question for a director is always: Is it worth bothering with an accent if the actors can’t get it, because then it is likely to get in the way of the acting. Jane Austen’s prose and her wit are written with the very musicality of British English in mind, it is virtually impossible to deliver those stinging arrows of understated malice without that specific intricate intonation pattern.
As a result the humor was not as much language based as one would have hoped, but more physical and almost farcical with several very hammy performances. The director chose American physicality, and American over the top facial expressions rather than English ones and many of the characters, who were attempting English accents did little more than change a few sounds without changing vocal placement, or intonation. I kept hearing the stress and rhythm of American English, with a few vowel changes here and there.
Given that the characters were moving like Americans, it might have been a good idea to dispense with the accents all together. Sylvester Foday Kamara’s performance as Mr. Knightly suffered because he was not comfortable with the accent, he stumbled over his lines, he spoke above his optimal pitch-due to tension and lack of breathing, so that the understated authority of his character was not conveyed in his voice. Sylvie Davison as Emma put in a delightful tour de force job as Emma, she was in every scene, she was pretty, light on her feet, affectionate and managed to keep her energy going even though she was in every single scene.
A few minor touches jarred the audience. The actress who played Miss Bates was at times incomprehensible. At $50 a ticket, the audience should get clear speech. Also no attempt was made to make her character look like a middle-aged woman. The actress, Serin Ngai is pencil-thin, so she could have passed for a 12-year old, yet her make-up made her look the same age as Emma and Harriet. Another minor touch was the “Badminton” racquets, which were modern paddle ball racquets. Badminton was an upper class pastime in those days, but not with plastic shuttlecocks or paddle-ball racquets.
All in all, though long, Emma was extremely funny, but its humor was based on over-the-top physical humor, and the clues about who was in love with whom were not at all subtle. For Austen virgins that was a good thing, any production has to stand on its own, but for me, it seemed to be not so much an adaptation as a re-interpretation, more like the movie Clueless. The audience could have no trouble realizing who was secretly engaged to whom, who was secretly in love with whom etc. etc. It made for a highly enjoyable evening but for Austen aficionados it might be a let down.
Emma. Book-It Repertory Theatre. Center Theatre at the Armory (Formerly Center House) , Seattle Center. 305 Harrison, Seattle, WA 98109 Wed-Sun eve. 7:30 ; Wed & Sun 2 pm matinee; thru Jan. 3. (no performances Dec. 24th and 26th) Tickets (206) 216-0833. Box office Tues thru Fri, Noon-5 pm. Outer lobby of Center Theatre at the Armory
Emma is selling out. Two extra performances added: Tuesday, December 29 at 7:30pm and Wednesday, December 30 at 2pm