Thursday, December 10, 2015

Sprightly "Emma" brings a touch of summer love

Sylvie Davidson as Emma (Adam Smith)
Book-It Repertory Theatre
Through January 3, 2016

Books by Jane Austen provide excellent material for Book-It Repertory Theatre. And subscribers and audiences seem to eat them up, selling out several performances for adaptations of Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, and Rachel Atkins’ romcom adaptation of Emma. Reprising now, after a production in 2009, the show is reimagined in some lovely ways.

Carol Roscoe, the director, creates a proscenium picture (last time was kind of in the round) of a grass-covered summer-time romp. The sun is shining (courtesy lighting designer Andrew D. Smith) and the topiary rolls and can be sat on (set design courtesy of Andrea Bryn Bush). All is enhanced with the sumptuous costuming by Jocelyn Fowler, who is becoming a favorite of mine. The costuming was deceptively simple, but the embellishments made all the difference.

When you attend, you must listen at all times for the music provided by Robertson Witmer. His cheeky sense of humor is embedded in violin renditions of very current popular music! Do you recognize “Call Me Maybe” or something from Adele? That’s Beyonce’s “Put a Ring on It,” right? It’s a definite plus to the evening!

The casting is refreshing, diverse in ethnicities and backgrounds. The use of actors of color in completely unmentioned and essentially unremarkable ways, with relatives being different skin colors, is what we can hope theater will become, to the point where we don’t have to ask about, think about or talk about the inclusion. It’s not there yet, so I mention it to celebrate it some more. While Austen’s life probably did not historically intersect with many people of color, there is zero reason to limit this kind of production in order to comply with history. This is fiction, and the lessons of the tale are to watch out for what you assume you know about people, and to keep some room for self-doubt about your judgments.

Emma Woodhouse (Sylvie Davidson, who delightfully returns to our area to perform in this role once more) is a headstrong young woman who believes in her own infallibility, a character flaw that Austen exploits in demonstrating the folly of trying to manipulate other lives. Emma likes to arrange marriages and fancies herself the perfect matchmaker, having decided she set her governess up for that current happy marriage.

Watching with a jaundiced eye is her brother-by-marriage, Mr. Knightley (Sylvester Foday Kamara), whose brother married Emma’s older sister. He sees her downfall, though his advice is unheeded and he is treated as a meddling brother. Emma undertakes a project with Harriet Smith (an adorable Meme Garcia), a young woman of uncertain background, deciding she should wed the local parson, while convincing Harriet not to marry a farmer she is in love with. Harriet is a biddable sort, to her own detriment.

The play is best when done clearly as a romp. The timing at opening was a bit too sedate, and the portrayals of the crass characters a bit too safe. Hopefully, they will all settle in and begin to play with more abandon, letting the fun fly. Every character has room to expand her or his range of emotions, and it would be all to the better.

The large cast includes the haughty and self-obsessed Mrs. Elton (Christine Marie Brown), her benighted parson (Jaryl Draper), a reserved and down-at-luck Jane (Sara Porkalob) that Emma is never quite sure she should like, and Brian Thompson as Emma’s cantankerous father.

The play’s simple moral propels to a well-known happy ending and Emma realizes how wrong she has been. Fortunately, all her meddling has ended up with no one really having to suffer marrying the wrong person. All’s well that ends well. Oops, that’s a different tale altogether.

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