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Entrancing Emma at Book-It Repertory
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Entrancing Emma at Book-It Repertory

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

Emma
Book-It Repertory Theatre
Through November 22


Books by Jane Austen provide excellent material for Book-It Repertory, since their production of Pride and Prejudice was so well received in 2000 and 2002, and last year they presented a lovely production of Persuasion. Emma, another Austen book, is a new adaptation that brings to life the 19th-century mores of Austen's world. The visual feast provided by Andrea Bush's spare but elegant set, with graceful chandeliers and ribbon, and Deane Middleton's wonderful costumes sumptuously sets the table for a delightful production.

Emma Woodhouse is a headstrong young woman who believes in her own infallibility, a character flaw that Austen exploits to demonstrate the folly of trying to manipulate other lives. As embodied by Sylvie Davidson, all of Emma's willfulness and stubborn imagination are in full display. 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 (no first name), whose brother married Emma's older sister. Knightley, played with a supercilious condescension by Dylan Chalfy, has known Emma since she was preteen, and tries to warn her off of her meddling ways. He foresees her downfall, though his advice is unheeded and he is treated as a meddling brother. Of course, the audience knows that ultimately he is perfect for Emma, though she does not yet realize it, and feels content to remain unmarried herself.

Emma undertakes a project with Harriet Smith, a young woman of uncertain background, and decides Smith should wed the local parson, Mr. Elton (again, no first name). Harriet (hilariously played by Ashley Marshall, who practically steals every scene she's in) and Elton (another archly awful character played wonderfully by John Bianchi) are completely incompatible. Emma convinces Harriet she should not marry the farmer, Mr. Martin, who Harriet really should marry. Harriet is convinced to have feelings first for Mr. Elton and then, when he spurns her, she thinks she's in love with Mr. Knightley (to Emma's dismay).

A subplot involves another couple, Frank Churchill (Daniel Brockley) and Jane Fairfax (Nicole Fierstein) who are secretly engaged, yet pretend not to be interested in each other. Jane lives with her aunt Miss Bates (a grovellingly, awkwardly fun Samantha Wykes) and her mother Mrs. Bates (Betty Gard, who proves there are no small parts). Emma flirts with Churchill as he flirts back, but never really feeling attraction to him, to the relief of all when the secret comes out.

Also a huge scene-stealer when she enters the play, Emily Grogan (who played Jane in Pride and Prejudice) plays Mrs. Elton, the upper crust, insecure bully who marries the parson and tries to control everyone. Her character is very like the Penelope character on Saturday Night Live, who tries to one-up everyone no matter how absurd it becomes.

Director Marcus Goodwin gets good mileage out of the humorous situations and keeps the caricatures tightly reined in, maximizing the comic situation. One might quibble with creating "theater in the round" since it made for some awkwardness that was unnecessary, and made it hard for some audience members to hear everything, but conceptually, Emma at the center of the storm swirling around her is a good foundation. There are a couple of choice bits of fun, such as Emma and Elton taking a very bumpy carriage ride, where Emma is forced to endure his protestations of love.

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 by marrying the wrong person.

For more information, go to www.book-it.org or call 206-772-0880.

Comments on reviews go to sgncritic@gmail.com.

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