Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Like Austen's other work, Emma is a comedy of manners, lampooning the social strictures of British society in the early 1800s and shedding light on the limited options available for women. To underscore that point, Austen herself had to publish her works under a pseudonym, as no respectable woman would draw public attention to herself in this manner. In the case of Emma, the title character, Emma Woodhouse, is a twenty-year-old woman, youngest daughter of a landed widower. Emma has been highly educated by her governess, Anne, but owing to her station in life, is not allowed an opportunity to put her intelligence and learning to any use in the world, and thus falls into a passion for playing matchmaker for the available men and women in her orbit.
Emma's foray into matchmaking begins when Emma fortuitously introduces Anne to Mr. Weston, a congenial forty-something widower who lives in their picturesque town of Highbury, and the two marry. Emma's subsequent attempts at matchmaking are far less successful, hampered by, among other things, her narrow ideas about social class being an arbiter of marriage. It is not that she views marriage as a business arrangement–far from it. She has an inflated sense of romance, encouraging her protegee Harriet Smith to aspire to the models set by Antony and Cleopatra, Tristan and Isolde, and Romeo and Juliet–even when Harriet queries "But didn't they die?."
The Woodhouse manor abuts the Knightley estate, home of George Knightly. Any version of Emma–Austen's original, Hamill's current adaptation, or any of its other film, television or screen renditions–ultimately revolves around the friction between Emma and Mr. Knightly. Where Emma is impulsive, extravagant and self-absorbed, Knightly is reasoned and restrained, though also very kind. He often chastises Emma for her intemperate behavior, as when he pleads with her to put a stop to her matchmaking, telling her that "love has its own agenda" and is not under her control. His criticism only makes Emma all the more determined to prove that she has a genius for matchmaking.
In Austen's novel, Knightly is seventeen years older than Emma; in Hamill's rendition he is only five years older, giving the impression of the two nearly growing up together and his chastisements more akin to sibling bickering than and adult disciplining a child. This quite likely makes the slow-burning–but always obvious to the audience–relationship between the two feel more palatable, as a thirty-seven-year-old harboring yearnings for a twenty-year-old–especially one he has known since her birth–while perhaps common in 1815, might be discomforting today.
Discomforting is the last word I would use to describe Hamill's breezy adaptation, which is made all the more of a frolic by director Meredith McDonough. The production is enlivened by anachronistic music and dancing, with inspired movement direction by Emily Michael King that sometimes melds gavotte with club dancing to the beats of artists such as The Supremes, Lizzo, Stevie Wonder, The Beach Boys, and an especially apt use of Madonna's "Material Girl." The costumes, lovely creations by Lex Liang, are all elaborately period-appropriate, except for Frank Churchill, a prodigal son returned home who exudes self-confidence and is thought to be a great catch for the ladies–he is adorned in tight-fitting jeans and a black leather jacket, a definitely "too cool for school" look.
Lex Liang also designed the glorious set as well as costumes, and I admit to being won over by the production the moment I entered the theater and spied the set. An highly scrolled picture frame embracing the entire arch at the rear of the Wurtele's thrust, leans out toward the audience, as if threatening to fall and ensnare us in the on-stage shenanigans. Within the frame a staircase and arches, accented in moldings to match the period, mark the interiors, while rising above is a delightful diorama of the Surrey countryside, dotted with charming model homes reflecting the differing social stations of the characters in the show. Above it all are hung tufts of soft, comforting clouds. I found the total effect to be transporting.
Hamill's script calls for breaking the fourth wall on multiple occasions, so that Emma can directly address the audience, usually in sarcastic tones, chastising us for not more vigorously siding with her. Amelia Pedlow, as Emma, makes the most of these moments. She endows Emma with great wit, a sheen of loveliness, and high spirits, maintaining the drive of this indefatigable dynamo with a desperate need to channel her energy and intelligence. She is well matched with Carman Lacivita, a charming New York-based actor making his Minnesota debut as Mr. Knightley. Lacivita has the boyish handsomeness that both appeals to Emma and marks him as a brotherly rather than a romantic figure in her life. He stands up briskly to her poor judgments, yet always projects an unfailing affection for her.
Ryan Colbert's portrayal of Frank Churchill carries just the right touch of smarminess and entitlement to ensure we are not big fans of the assumption held by everyone in Highbury that he and Emma are destined to be a match. Christine Weber plays Jane Fairfax, whom Emma sees as a competitor, with a brooding quality that is somewhat out of step with the tone of the other players, though we come to understand the cause of her unhappiness. As Anne, Emma's former governess, Brenda Withers is wonderful, out of the main frame through most of the story but there to deliver words of wisdom when they are crucially called for.
The remaining characters are played in rather exaggerated manner, as in television sitcoms of the 1950s, going over the top with peculiar mannerisms, obsessions, and reactions to events. These include Samantha Steinmetz as Harriet Smith, whose behaviors conjure the word "zany" in a way once used for Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett; Sun Mee Chomet as Jane Fairfax's aunt, Miss Bates, a woman life has treated unkindly and who papers over her disappointments by constantly expressing appreciation or everything and everyone; Louis Sallan as Mr. Elton, the local preacher who is the "victim" of one of Emma's misguided attempts at matchmaking; Anna Leverett as the woman Mr. Elton marries; and David Kelly, laid back and agreeable as Mr. Weston, but bizarrely obsessed with gruel as Emma's father, making his character clueless to the point of becoming wearisome.
It is interesting that Emma is the most privileged woman in the show, yet she is also the most sheltered. She has never known a struggle, nor has she been out of the safe, cozy environs of Highbury and the Surrey countryside. Her journey in the course of the play brings her to the realization that rather than address the restrictions placed on her, as a woman of high station, she has set about to create dramas all around, using others' lives to create some kind of purpose for hers. Austen certainly had such feelings in mind when writing her novel, and though Hamill has mined Emma to uncover the comic gold within, she also allows for thoughtful expressions of Emma's personal growth within a context of the repression of women's potential.
The last Guthrie commission was Lynn Nottage's play Floyd's, which opened this past season on Broadway under the name Clyde's (to avoid confusion with George Floyd, whose murder occurred after the play's Guthrie premiere) and earned several Tony nominations, including Best Play. I don't know if Hamill's Emma will land on Broadway, with its high stakes economics, but it will undoubtedly play in New York, as Hamill's Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, based on two other Jane Austen classics, have done, as well as make its way to regional theaters around the country, as well it should. This is not only because our infatuation with all things Austen seems to be continuing, but because it is very good.
As seen at the Guthrie, Emma is a delight. It unleashes wave after wave of laughter, enjoyable characters, a stunning physical production, spirited movement, all wrapped up with a bit of a moral, and a very warm feeling of things, at last, going right in the world. How many days recently have you encountered such a feeling? If you're due for a fix, you owe it to yourself to see Emma.
Emma runs through August 21, 2022, at the Guthrie Theater's Wurtele Thrust Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $26.00 to $80.00. seniors (65+), college students (with ID) - $3.00 - $6.00 off per ticket. Public rush line for unsold seats 15 - 30 minutes before performance, up to four tickets, $20.00 - $25,00, cash or check only. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwright: Kate Hamill; Director: Meredith McDonough; Scenic and Costume Design: Lex Liang; Lighting Design: Paul Toben; Sound Design: Palmer Hefferan; Movement Director: Emily Michaels King; Fight Director: Aaron Preusse; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Voice and Dialect Coach: Jill Walmsley Zager; Intimacy Coach: Tonia Sina; Resident Casting: Jennifer Liestman; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Stage Manager: Tree O'Halloran; Assistant Stage Manager: Nate Stranger; Assistant Director: Jillian Robertson
Cast: Sun Mee Chomet (Miss Bates), Ryan Colbert (Robert Martin/Frank Churchill), David Kelly (Mr. Weston/Mr. Woodhouse), Carman Lacivita (George Knightley), Anna Leverett (Mrs. Elton), Amelia Pedlow (Emma Woodhouse), Louis Sallan (Mr. Elton), Samantha Steinmetz (Harriet Smith), Christine Weber (Jane Fairfax), Brenda Withers (Mrs. Anne Weston).