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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey
Pear Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's reviews of West Side Story and Native Gardens


Leslie Ivy and Cast
Photo Courtesy of Pear Theatre
In her first novel written for publication in 1803 but not published until after her death, Jane Austen satirizes in "Northanger Abbey" the then-popular gothic novels which overflow with dark, stormy nights in damp, spooky castles and where murder and romance often go hand-in-hand. Ten years ago, then founder and Artistic Director Diane Tasca adapted the early venture by the famed author into a play that proved a hit for her Pear Theatre in Mountain View.

As its present season opener, Pear Theatre revives Ms. Tasca's Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. In a production true to the original novel and told in a word-for-word fashion, the majority of the characters' lines are not the dialogues of the story but the narrative describing the characters, their actions, and their settings. Much like works done by the San Francisco theatre company Word for Word, actors continually come and go, inserting in passing a few words or a sentence or two of the story, with one actor often picking up the description from another and continuing with almost no pause in between the two. The result is a complex maze of lines that the cast of eight (six playing multiple parts) must maneuver; and overall, director Troy Johnson has succeeded in ensuring the flow of shared and connected lines is smooth and often seamless (although there was on the night I saw the production a number of second takes on lines as well as one or another actor sometimes coming in too early or late).

Leslie Ivy plays the seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland with the all the wonder, naivite, and rollercoaster emotions that an avid reader of gothic novels might have had at the time. She longs to be in one of the stories she daily reads, and as events in her life unfold, she quickly imagines and hopes that drawers of ancient cabinets will open to reveal secret doors to passages wild and mysterious. But in the meantime, the young woman who sees herself as a "heroine in the making" (and is clearly looking for a hero) gets to spend the summer in Bath where she meets both a new best friend, Isabella Thorpe (Dana Reynolds), and a "not quite handsome but very near it" young gentleman, Henry Tilney (Peter Ray Juarez).

While not exactly from the pulp pages of a gothic novel, ups and downs, twists and turns as well as heartthrobs and heartbreaks do become part of Catherine's next few months. The more flirtatious, outgoing Isabella becomes engaged to Catherine's brother James (Christopher Mungovan) but also has eyes, and oohs and aahs, for Henry Tilney's brother Captain Tilney (also played by Mr. Mungovan), setting up rocky times in the relationship of the two girls. Isabella's rather braggart, obnoxious, and crude-speaking/acting brother John Thorpe (played appropriately like an overgrown spoiled brat by Matthew Brown) believes his destiny is to have Catherine as his wife. When Catherine does not find his nasally, argumentative persona to be to her liking, he seeks revenge through lies and deceptions.

In the meantime, after also becoming great friends with Henry's sister Eleanor Tilney (played by Damaris Divito), Catherine gets a chance to visit Henry's family home, a true-to-life abbey named Northanger—just like, she imagines, in the gothic novels she avidly reads. And it is there in the opening of act two, where this Pear Theatre adaptation of two hours, thirty minutes has its best moments.

Up until then, the narrating nature of the production and the lack of that much character-to-character, direct dialogue make the play a bit tedious and repetitious. The abilities of the actors to render the play's lines and characterizations vary greatly, with the female actors overall stronger than the males (including the not-yet-mentioned Carolyn Ford Compton, who is delightful in a number of matronly roles of English ladies of various social realms). Missed lines, flubbed/changing accents (with British sometimes sounding more like southern Virginian), and too little variation in characterization are too often issues for the male portion of the cast.

But once in Northanger, Catherine's imagination, egged on by Henry where he has planted in her wide-eyed head ideas of hidden chambers and the possibility of ghosts, leads her to believe she is soon to discover terrible secrets and maybe treasures (of at least a gossip kind) during a windy, thundering night. During this fifteen-or-so-minute sequence, the rest of the cast becomes inanimate objects—from wall-high cabinets to heavy doors to drawers with possible secret panels—as frightened but exhilarated Catherine ventures forth to find her real-life gothic novel. Both Ms. Ivy and the other cast members excel with their finest moments of the evening during this sequence.

Unfortunately, after the supposed gothic aspects of Northanger come to full daylight reality, the adapted play once again begins to drag on a bit, with the word-for-word nature continuing until the predictable end. What does enliven the entire evening are the excellent, ongoing projections of David Hobbs. Scores of English scenes—outdoor and indoor photographs, pages from books of the period, etc.—offer a backdrop that complement the simple, flexible, and totally adequate set designed by Troy Johnson.

In the past few years, there have been a number of Jane Austen adaptions to hit the British and American stages, including at many theatres here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Kudos go to Diane Tasca and Pear Theatre for bringing one of Ms. Austen's lesser-known works to the attention of audiences. However, in my opinion, the chosen means of a word-for-word adaption for Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey zaps energy from the story and does not allow the richness of characters ever to develop fully.

Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey is being produced with a "junior" cast alternating with the cast of this review—young actors drawn from Pear Theatre's new youth theatre program, Pear Seeds.

Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, through September 23, 2018, at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View CA. Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.


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