Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Theater review: Artisan Center Theater brings Jane Austen back to life with Emma
The theater changed its layout for a more effective performance.
HURST Sensibilities and manners of England’s past are far from the social life we see today. Other than glimpses into early 20th century aristocratic life on Downton Abbey, the concept that people were faithfully, excessively polite to each other is foreign. In the early 1800s, under George IV, grace and nobility reigned supreme. Status and class difference were crucial to social interactions. People were conscious of wealth in families and their distant lineage. Marriages were “alliances” more than loving relationships and women disappeared into their marriages as the realm was ruled by men. Of course, this was also the time period of Jane Austen, one of England’s greatest writers who perhaps gave us the best glimpse into this lifestyle.
Emma was one of the last novels in Austen’s prolific writing career, following her most famous novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. As one who lived within those aristocratic sensibilities, Austen was in the perfect position to comment on and make light of the lives of her society.
Emma tells a story about a young lady of means who delights in matching young ladies and gentlemen around her while ignoring her own needs and operating her father’s estate without the interference of a husband. Emma has been adapted for several movies, numerous TV shows, and even more stage adaptations. In 2010, Michael Bloom adapted it for the Cleveland Playhouse and this is the version Artisan Center Theater is using for their current production.
Artisan is well known for its high-quality family productions, one of only a few in the North Texas area to predominantly produce for the entire family. And Emma is another great choice for audiences, from the youngest to the oldest. It’s a light-hearted romantic comedy with an easy-to-grasp message shown in a highly entertaining and visually beautiful way.
Eve Roberts directed Emma with a team of artisans who created an accessible and attractive setting. With sound by Rick Blair and Nate Davis, lighting also by Davis, and a set designed by Eve Roberts and Davis, 23 scenes in different English locations filled Artisan’s newly re-built acting space. Gone is the old theater-in-the-round. This production used a small stage on one of the sides that contained decorations and furnishings for several different Highbury estates, a cottage, and a dance hall, with simple movement of a few stage pieces. And the large square floor area surrounded on three sides by seating was still open for outdoor scenes. Those set furnishings were elegant, antique, and easily representative of their historical use, thanks to Chris Seil and Andrew Hoover. The back stage wall was used for very large, high-quality projected sceneries, including one of the nicest projections of English countryside I’ve seen. The projections included moving video, so a rain storm looked credible combined with sound and lighting effects.
The soundtrack included musical arrangements by Jon Kennedy, with classical piano and pastoral orchestral pieces. Kudos to Rick Blair and the Artisan techs for nailing their microphone balance. It’s refreshing to hear and understand everything said and sung without extreme effort.
Speaking of hearing, everyone’s English accents were understandable, thanks to English Dialect Coach, Yvonne Vautier-Delay. Forced accents are a common sore spot in English plays which distract from the story, but this cast got it right.
Choreographer Nicole Holbrook created what appeared to be authentic 1820s English dances, including waltz, minuet, and what could be a English country dance from the Regency period. All were short, well-danced and provided a glimpse into the graceful and pastoral nature of era.
This time period in English history was also a time of fashion innovation as seen in Europe’s more-flattering clothing styles. Costumer Rebecca Roberts led a team of seamstresses, wig provider Jack Bledsoe, and hat providers, Hannah Cooper and Joanna Philips, and her designs seemed authentic for the period and provided a wonderful color palette befitting of the characters and the story. Ladies wore high-waisted Empire dresses in floral prints and pastels, with sashes, scarves and other highlights. They wore or carried fancy colorful hats you might see at the Kentucky Derby. Men wore tight trousers with riding boots, top coats, and top hats, more sedate but also colorful. With all this brightly-lit finery, the audience could slip easily right into the 1800s.
The actors were accomplished with their wordy script and their different character creations. When a cast is driven to align character choices from a script, the novel it was based on, and well-known historical references, it becomes a challenge for actors to keep the familiar aspects of those characters while also creating individual interpretations. Roberts directed her cast well to achieve this and the audience was treated with both authenticity and individuality.
Heroine Emma Woodhouse was played by Hannah Cooper and she portrayed a self-confident, elegant young lady unafraid of challenging the status quo while also being both elegant and statuesque in her look and demeanor. Cooper exuded a constant air of the confident, wealthy woman. When she frequently broke the fourth wall to narrate parts of the story, she stood tall and strong in her spotlight and presented her commentary, and then slipped back into Emma and her current plight. When Emma matched couples for marriage, her delight was joyful. And when she discovered a match she botched, she dealt with her mistake in a way that could teach us lessons about dealing with failure. It was Cooper projecting her own confident style which allowed us to see Emma in this way.
Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, is a hypochondriac worried with the health and safety of all around him. He gives way to Emma on serious matters of the estate. Mark Winter played him as dour, a bit weepy, always a little sick, but not pathetic. Woodhouse has an anti-marriage view of the world, especially for his daughter, and so most of his conversations are depressing to the others. Winter created a character somewhat like Eyore of Winnie the Pooh fame. However, in spite of being a downer, Winter made Woodhouse a lovable, respectable gentleman.
George Knightley owns the estate next door. He’s the spur in Emma’s side and this vexes her most. Kyle Davis played Knightley. Davis is a young blond actor, dashing in his light blue top-coat and khaki-colored pants and he provided a nice pairing to Cooper’s Emma, both being tall and aristocratic in their look and the way they held their stage space. Davis projected an air of wealth, confidence and comfort like a man who knows he’s right because he deserves to be right. In Davis’ manners and movement, we saw a true aristocratic gentleman. Knightley frequently challenges Emma’s belief systems and Davis did this as if Knightley has concern and influence for her as a friend, though at times the two actors presented a quality of Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado about Nothing.
Other characters in the cast stood out as well. Rebecca Roberts gave us Harriet Smith, Emma’s young protégé who she thinks needs her help to find a husband. Roberts allowed Harriet to fall under Emma’s power with a bubbly naïveté that came through her voice and frequent dumb pronouncements, like a smart girl who’s a bit dumb because of her innocence. Mr. Elton, the new Vicar of the local church, was played by David Seil with an effeminate affect that made him easily recognizable as a “proper English snob,” a near-gentleman trying desperately to improve his status through marriage. Every moment he pranced and paraded through a scene delighted the audience. Seil’s physical body movement, vocal range and accented speech was over-the-top in a comedic way, much like Basil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers, especially when he followed Emma around on his knees trying to propose to her. Miss Bates, the former wife of the old Vicar, was played by Nicole Holbrook. Holbrook made her an absolute hilarity as she answered questions meant for her niece, carried on a constant stream of words describing things and telling stories, and kept filling the atmosphere with her lightness.
There was even a couple of outstanding musical moments between Emma, Miss Bates’ niece, Jane Fairfax, played by Joanna Philips, and Jane’s secret beau, Frank Churchill, played by Jameson Taylor. In this scene, Emma “plays” the pianoforte to show a budding musical ability and sings a duet with Taylor. Then Jane “plays” to show her piano virtuosity and sings a solo. Both pieces were a nice surprise and sung well by Cooper, Taylor and Philips.
Artisan Center Theater has created a new space in which to tell their stories, one that puts you as close to the story as you can get. Emma fits well in that space. Austen comments on the “perils of misconstrued romance,” according to Eve Roberts’ Director’s Notes. It also pokes a bit of fun at England’s status-consciousness society and their over-reliance on wealth and lineage to determine someone’s value. But only a little poke. Austen, after all, was herself part of that world. She may have been a social pioneer as well as a literary one. Take the drive to Hurst and judge for yourself.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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