Review: EMMA is Eccentric at the Denver Center

If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.

By: Apr. 18, 2024
Review: EMMA is Eccentric at the Denver Center
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When people think of works of art that have vastly outlived their creator, especially as it relates to literature, there is no bigger name than William Shakespeare. His mark on history has proven to have an impact that will live on in perpetuity. Among those who admired his work is none other than fellow English writer Jane Austen who would at times, perhaps even satirically, invoke Shakespeare into her works. This is true across multiple novels; among them is Emma, which is the latest play to be mounted at DCPA in a fresh take by playwright Kate Hamill.

Based on Austen's classic literary tale, Hamill's contemporary version of Emma remains at its core akin to the source material. At the top of the show, we meet a naive yet galvanized Emma Woodhouse who is fresh off the success of acting as "matchmaker" for her governess and practically ready to step into the heels of Dolly Levi herself. Though, perhaps her motivation is for her own personal gain rather than that of those she elects to assist in finding romance. Emma is challenged by her longtime - and older - friend George Knightly who insists she couldn't possibly spark a flame between two people again. It then becomes her goal to find a suitable match for Harriet Smith who would like nothing more than to love and be loved. Along the way we meet a merry band of characters who each add their own twist to the tale that ultimately leads Emma to a much needed reconciliation of her own life and personal ambitions.

The team behind Emma continues to build on a tradition of theatrical excellence coming out of DCPA. Under the direction of Meredith McDonough, the cast and crew offer up a production that is reverent to the original source material while feeling fresh and whimsical. There is a sense of "camp" that resonates from the script that is echoed in the design elements - even the character Harriet's abhorrent first wig has a place among the playfulness. Lex Liang has absolutely knocked it out of the park having helmed both the scenic and costume designs. The subtle choreographic elements by Emily Michaels King also add so much value in a way that speaks to the idea that even the simple can be profound. All that being said, these elements would be for naught if it weren't for a fresh take on the tale by Hamill. A rising star among thespians, she has truly taken 200 years of precedent and given this classic Jane Austen novel the royal treatment it deserves.

The cast of Emma does a great job of creating individualized characters that contribute to the ability to take in the cast as a singular ensemble. What I mean to say is everyone is pulling their weight and "living" in the world they have collaboratively created. I was equally impressed by Annie Barbour as Jane Fairfax, Emma's self-proclaimed archnemesis, and Joey Parsons as Mrs. Weston, Emma's recently married governess. Barbour's characterization is arguably the most grounded among the cast. With the least amount of built-in comedic moments, there is an opportunity for the audience to see Jane as Emma sees her, but Barbour's performance touches on the idea that Jane is, frankly, just trying to live her life. Parsons' portrayal of Mrs. Weston is that of the true matriarchal figure, having essentially been so for Emma during her childhood. Unlike Jane Fairfax, Mrs. Weston is delightfully funny when she wants to be but never at the expense of offering up some words of advice, including a profound monologue in the second act that really drives home certain lessons for the other characters - and audience members. Parsons delivers these moments with subtle and carefully curated expertise.

As the handsome and debonair Frank Churchill, Marco Alberto Robinson is more than just easy on the eyes. Robinson has an interesting position in the show. The "secret romance" between Churchill and Fairfax would, in other tales, be the main plot. In that tale, we'd witness Churchill's story arc from sexual deviant to perfect gentleman. In this telling, all of that happens off-screen, yet Robinson still engages the audience with a "will he, won't he" sort of charm. Carman Lacivita as George Knightly is the perfect balance of tenderness and confidence. Even from the first interaction between he and Amelia Pedlow's Emma Woodhouse, Lacivita perfectly captures the subtleties in George's longing for Emma without compromising his societal stature.

Samantha Steinmetz, more than any other actor, seemed to have the most fun (and freedom) in creating her version of Harriet Smith. Steinmetz's physical comedy was such a well-rounded addition to the character. She presents Harriet in a way that is both outrageous and relatable. Truthfully, she was my favorite. Nonetheless, it is Amelia Pedlow in the titular role who guides the show - and Denver Center audience - from start to finish. I referenced earlier how Emma is a young budding Dolly Levi. In reality, Emma is careless, selfish, and generally unserious in a way Dolly Levi wouldn't dare. By intermission, I had attributed these qualities to Pedlow's interpretation of the character and commented how I wished she would take her role more seriously. By the climax of the second act, it finally dawned on me that this is the character herself and Pedlow is portraying those personality traits so effortlessly. Top it all off with a few heavy dashes of comedic timing and voila - a star is born. I walked out of the show saying, "I take back everything I said at intermission."

Not to be overlooked, rounding out the cast is Louis Sallan as Mr. Elton, Steph Holmbo as Mrs. Elton, Brent Hinkley as Mr. Woodhouse, and, in a less than rare occurrence, understudy Emily Van Fleet as Miss Bates. Each of these players add such value to the show in their own unique way. I want to especially praise Van Fleet and her duty as understudy. I always find understudies to be the most impressive and she was no different in her turn as Miss Bates. 

Generally speaking, the story itself is not groundbreaking, especially given that Austen's novel has been retold through a variety of artistic mediums. Let's not forget the cult classic Clueless and its many iconic moments. What is fresh about this version is the female voice being written and presented by women. Too often, Austen's literary adventures are retold through the male gaze. It was a captivating change of pace to witness women living in a man's world desire so much more for themselves without inhibition. As a wise literary female figure once said, "I always deserve the best treatment because I never put up with any other."

Emma runs at DCPA through May 5, 2024.


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