At the Lifeline Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – It’s too bad the early 1800’s were such a dead zone in English drama. Jane Austen would have made a superb playwright, with her genius at creating fascinating characters, her wit, and her deliciously wise dialogue.
Austen never wrote a play but she did finish six novels that are among the icons of English-language literature. The Lifeline Theatre staged adaptations of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” in 2012 and Northanger Abbey in 2016. The company is ending its current season with a premiere of “Emma,” Austen’s longest and perhaps her greatest novel.
In a sense, Austen wrote the same novel over and over, confining the location to the English provincial village and rural life of her time. Within this narrow world, she wrote with satirical wisdom, wit, and insight about husband-hunting mothers and daughters and marriage eligible landowners and clergymen. In all her novels Austen revealed her brilliant eye for nailing the importance of class and money in the society of her time.
The novel’s title character is Emma Woodhouse, a charming and willful and financial well fixed young lady with too much time on her hands. To amuse herself she meddles in the lives of people around her, with special attention to arranging suitable matches, planning the lives of the unmarried men and women around her according to what she feels is in their best interests. The results misfire, creating heartbreak and hard feelings until the omniscient author sorts out the conflicts to end the story with a happy marriage, the inevitable ending of every Austen novel.
At the Lifeline, adapter Phil Timberlake elected to tell the complicated plot using one actress in the title role and four performers playing the vast number of characters who cross Emma’s path. The condensation allows the supporting actors to display an impressive physical and vocal versatility as they shift from character to character with just a shift in body language and the removal or addition of eyeglasses. The performers never change costume, each wearing a single outfit representative of the Regency period in English history.
Timberlake reduces the story into about 90 minutes of playing time. There is one intermission. During that time the audience is asked to follow the ups and downs of one or more interacting characters variously named Weston, Elton, Knightly, Martin, Bates, Churchill, Woodhouse, Smith, and Fairfax (a number of other character’s didn’t make the adapter’s cut, including a troupe of gypsies). A single set represents various interior and exterior settings, from a stagecoach ride to a fancy dress ball. Time passes, though it’s difficult to follow how much time elapses as the scenes pass in brisk procession. Viewers not familiar with the novel’s plot may struggle trying to follow the story and especially which character is speaking with which other character.
Regrettably, the production suffers from undercasting in the title role. Emma Sipora Tyler gets through the surface of the role but she doesn’t get beneath the skin of Emma, with her blend of charm, do-gooding manipulation, and self delusion. Tyler is on stage virtually the entire production and a strong Emma is essential to making the story work. Her Emma doesn’t hold her own in the numerous scenes with supporting characters, who come across as more colorful and dramatically interesting.
The supporting ensemble is very good, especially considering the demands on their making split-second character transformations. Madeline Pell is a hoot as Harriet Smith, the downtrodden young woman who absorbs many of Emma’s misguided matchmaking shenanigans. Pell can flip the personality switch in the blinking of an eye with an eloquent change in facial expression. Peter Gertas skillfully portrays several of the gentleman would-be beaus, and it isn’t his fault that I was occasionally stymied as to exactly which character he was impersonating. Jeri Marshall has less stage time than the other performers but makes the transformation between, beat-down, arrogant, and sympathetic. I especially enjoyed Cory David Williamson as Knightly. His performance beautifully captures the Austenian tone that blends droll wit and generosity with a somewhat overbearing nature, the perfect mate for the willful but well meaning Emma.
The production is directed by Elise Kauzlaric, the director of the two previous Lifeline Austen adaptations. Kauzlaric is the right person to handle this kind of subtle comic-drama. Her ability to orchestrate the sometimes amusing comings and goings of the characters on and off the intimate Lifeline stage is critical to making the production work. Aly Renee Amidei designed the period costumes. Sarah Lewis designed the atmospheric and functional single set. Andrew Hansen is responsible for the original music and sound design and Diane Fairchild designed the lighting plan.
I would have preferred seeing this adaptation presented by a larger cast and adding another 30 minutes to the script. A viewer can’t get enough of Jane Austen’s satirical wit, sophisticated comic touches, subtle view of human nature, and a writing style that can only be called perfect. The Lifeline staging takes chances, and enough of the author’s mastery coming through to recommend the production, especially for Austen zealots.
The show gets a rating of
“Emma” runs through July 14 at the Lifeline Theatre, 6912 North Glenwood Avenue. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 4 p.m. Tickets are $40. Call 773 761 4477 or visit www.lifelinetheatre.com
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. June 2019
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