BWW Review: EMMA at Lifeline Theatre
"I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." So Jane Austen famously prefaced the vivacious Emma Woodhouse, whom she describes as "handsome, clever, and rich" in the opening words of her 1815 novel. Indeed, Emma, the meddlesome, would-be matchmaker is arguably the most controversial among Austen's canon of beloved protagonists. Yet, love or hate the leading lady, EMMA features many of Austen's most amusing supporting characters, and here is where Lifeline Theatre's production of this romantic comedy thrives.
In Phil Timberlake's new adaptation, directed by Elise Kauzlaric, five actors share a dozen characters, with the exception of Emma Sipora Tyler, who plays Emma Woodhouse throughout. In the small English town of Highbury, Emma lives alone with her doting, elderly father and spends her abundant leisure time interfering in the love lives of her friends and neighbors. Her efforts cause more harm than good and blind her to the wishes of her own heart, until Emma reforms her ways and, Austen-like, everything wraps up tidily with several weddings.
Not only does each ensemble member portray multiple characters; in addition, individual supporting roles are often shared among multiple actors. This may sound like a recipe for confusion, but Cory Williamson, Peter Gertas, Maddie Pell, and Jeri Marshall make the rapid-fire shifts not only clear, but also highly entertaining. Some exchanges are reminiscent of improv games or acting warm-ups. For example, the toss of a cane indicates a passing of Mr. Woodhouse's role from one actor to another, with the second actor immediately adopting his stooping gait and worried air.
Employing another classic comedic device, a single actor occasionally switches back and forth between two characters in conversation with each other. In one memorable scene, Maddie Pell, a promising young character actor, hops up and down as she flips between Miss Bates, a good-hearted but silly spinster, and Harriet Smith, Emma's amiable but less-than-bright protégée. There are also several sly nods to this adaptation's small-ensemble format. For instance, Harriet innocently observes that Frank Churchill "looks a bit like Mr. Elton" (Peter Gertas plays both characters).
In this production, the strong supporting ensemble outshines the protagonist. Granted, Emma Woodhouse is a slippery role. Despite Austen's disclaimer that people would not like her heroine, my favorite portrayals of Emma are honest about her faults but also reveal her redeeming qualities: infectious enthusiasm for life, devotion to her father, liberality (within limits) in her choice of friends, and, ultimately, willingness to mend her mistakes. At Lifeline Theatre, I'd like to see more of these qualities in Emma, as well as higher emotional stakes: for example, her fiery temper in her tiffs with Mr. Knightley and her run-ins with the pompous Mr. and Mrs. Elton. This is not to fault actor, director, or adapter in entirety; a runtime of two hours (including intermission) makes it impossible to match the thorough character development of a classic novel. However, the balance between title character and comedic supporting roles could be more even.
Overall, Lifeline Theatre's EMMA capitalizes on the humor and wit of Jane Austen in a clever piece of ensemble theater. Austen aficionados and newcomers alike should find plenty to enjoy in this light romantic comedy. EMMA can respectably take its place in Lifeline's long-running tradition of adapting classic literary works for the stage.
EMMA runs through July 14 at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Avenue, Chicago, IL 60626. Tickets are available at 773.761.4477 or www.lifelinetheatre.com.
Photo by Suzanne Plunkett
Review by Emily McClanathan