British playwright Michael Fry is clearly no Jane Austen. And nobody is going to claim that he’s a dramatic genius. But for those of us who either never knew or have forgotten Emma, Austen’s comic masterpiece, and are simply out looking for an evening’s amusement, the Aurora Theatre’s new production of Fry’s play pays off.
Full Disclosure requires that I admit (Woe!) I have never read the book. Perhaps harder to explain is that I never even got around to seeing the movie Clueless, which arguably has se rved as the present generation’s major introduction to Austen’s famous work.
Frankly, until now, neither issue has caused me much trouble. However, they probably are the reason that I find myself in nose-to-nose conflict with two esteemed Bay Area critic s. Neither seems to find any redeeming qualities at all in Aurora’s production, apparently on the grounds that it doesn’t convey Austen’s work adequately.
Certainly anyone determined to see a rendition of the “real” characters and the wit that they reme mber from Austen will find the play an irritating failure. But if you can rid yourself of such expectations, this production definitely has its own charms. Yes, the play is not well-structured, and it’s quite possible to become a bit bewildered by the sheer number of subplots. And, certainly, the “play within a play” device is hackneyed. But it does offer the cast and director Jeffrey Bihir an opportunity to almost wallow in a demonstration of what good actors and good staging can produce.
What we have here is a group of talented actors who are given the opportunity to strut their stuff through a series of wildly different, albeit humorous, characterizations. With the exception of Lauren Grace, who has the substantial role of “Sarah-pretending-to-play-Emma” (and does fine work) each of the cast members spends the evening bouncing back and forth in four entirely unique roles. And the nice thing about it is that they’re all rather absurd. Nice, but absurd.
Perhaps even better is the fact that there isn’t a weak performance in the lot.
Indeed, clearing yourself of much interest at all in the “story” part of the production may help quite a bit in itself. Failing that, it is quite conceivable that you could find yourself lost in the tangle of multiple sto ry lines as they are played out by five talented actors, assuming—in full sight of the audience—a grand total of 18 different characters. Lost or not, it’s great fun to watch the actors switch roles back and forth; it may be the strongest part of the prod uction.
While, of course, it isn’t remarkable for actors to fill a couple of (customarily minor) roles in a presentation, it is usually a matter of economy. What this production of Emma has to offer is a delightful emphasis on the artificiality of the t heatrical performance itself. It’s a little like being invited inside the play to watch how the actors do it.
The props—a partial wig, a hat, some minor thing or another—are just enough to make at least something more than a mere symbolic change of chara cter as an actor switches from one role to another. They’re presented on stage by one of the actors who is waiting around—again, on stage—for his/her next time at bat. They’re not terribly obtrusive, but they’re there for sure.
The joke is emphasized b y two cross sex performances: Joe Wyka, a fairly large, heavily muscled man, does a turn at bat as Mrs. Bates, the elderly mother of the rather delicately youthful Kathleen Dobbs. She, in her turn, plays the spinster aunt of Jane Fairfax, played by the equally graceful Lindsay Benner, who manages to become the aged Mr. Woodhouse.
David Mendelsohn is part of the faction in the cast who are able to maintain the same sex throughout the evening. In the process, he plays two relatively young men and a Vicar, all of whom are impressively individuated.
This is a very strong cast.
Since there are obviously actors of the right sex ready and available to play all the necessary roles, as well as reasonable ways to get the actors who aren’t immediately in action o ut of the way, it is clear that both the cross-gender casting and the fact that the entire cast spends “off-stage” time lurking around the edges of the action are a matter of choice.
This sort of nonsense which, understandably, can make the details of th e plot at least a wee bit confusing is, to this viewer at least, worth the price of admission.
According to Aurora’s artistic director, Tom Ross, this play was chosen as the result of “the notion of doing a theatricalization of a novel, one with many ch aracters offering plenty of opportunities for actors to play multiple roles.”