Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Another Version of Jane Austen's Emma
Also see Richard's reviews of Once Upon a Mattress
The Aurora Theatre Company is currently presenting the west coast premiere of British playwright Michael Fry's Emma, which is based on Jane Austen's classic novel.
During the 1990s, there was a serge of transfers of Jane Austen novels to the big and small screen. Suddenly, this Victorian novelist became the "in" author of the late 20th century. Her dialogue was strictly upper-class Victorian, and every British actress wanted to be part of that charming period of British life. Three actresses in three years tackled the complex character of Emma: Gwyneth Paltrow on the big screen, Kate Beckinsale on the television screen and Alice Silverstone as a 21st century Emma in the film, Clueless.
English playwright Michael Fry's stage adaptation had its premiere on July 9th, 1996 at the King's Head Theatre in the Islington district of London. It got creditable reviews, with the Evening Standard calling it "a rare delight" and Time Out magazine saying that even Jane Austen would applaud it. The "play within a play" has been presented rarely here in the states and mostly to small audiences.
Rather than present a full-scale version of the novel, such as what the RSC presented, Michael Fry used a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland scenario of "hey let's put on a show." Five young people in modern day London have nothing better to do on a stormy afternoon than to go up to the attic of Sarah's (Lauren Grace) Victorian home to present a theatrical, just like in the days of Jane Austen. The attic is full of costumes and props, and they can have a great time of entertaining themselves. The big question here is can they entertain an audience for two and a half hours, playing the 20 characters of the play with 19th century England society protocol?
Sarah has a trunk full of old plays and, as she looks at the books, she throws them out one by one as not being very interesting. Eventually, she comes upon Austen's "Emma," and this is what the five will perform. One of the characters says "but Sarah, it is not a play but a novel." This character is so right; it is not a play, even with extensive dialogue by the author. Self-contained Sarah has made up her mind and she will play Emma as they entertain themselves on this cold, rainy day. What a shame the audience is included in the entertainment, as the tedious drama goes on much too long. One gets tired of hearing the stilted language of the Victorian ladies and gentlemen, especially when five very talented actors with British accents try to do 20 different characters.
David Mendelsohn, who is one of the best actors around, plays three main characters in the book: Mr. Martin, Mr. Elton and Frank Churchill. However, there is only a slight difference between these characters, and sometimes it is confusing as to which role he is playing. Lauren Grace, another excellent actor, plays Emma like Ms. Paltrow in the film; it's more film acting then stage acting. Kathleen Dobbs is wonderful as the naïve orphan Harriet Smith and gives a creditable performance as Miss Bates and Mrs. Elton. For some unexplained reason, Lindsay Benner plays old Mr. Woodhouse, only to serve it up as comic relief for the amusement of the five actors. Unfortunately, it is an embarrassing performance. The artist redeems herself as Mrs. Fairfax and Mrs. Weston. Joe Wyka plays Mr. Knightley as Jeremy Northam from the film and is quite good as the strongest practical character of the play. He also puts on a shawl and a pair of glasses and becomes the silent Mrs. Bates, which is very amusing.
Designer J.B Wilson has devised a very clever set for the three-sided stage, with A-frame rafters high above, giving the audience the appearance that they are in an attic that is cluttered with chairs, toys, clothes and picture frames. There is even a piano, and one of the characters occasionally tickles the keyboards as well as plays a flute. All very charming, I must admit. Jeffrey Bihr's direction is somewhat uneven in that some of the scenes sparkle while others fall flat.
Emma plays though December 19 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, Ca. For tickets call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.