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Dead Writers Theatre Collective Reinvigorates Jane Austen’s EMMA
THEATRE IN CHICAGO: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Decades before Dolly Levi waved her little hand and whispered “So Long Dearie”, Emma Woodhouse had the market cornered as far as the job of matchmaking was concerned.
Jane Austen’s most popular character that is exalted as ‘handsome, clever and rich’, makes it her mission to match up would be bachelors and bachelorettes during the well-mannered Regency Era of England, to verifying degrees of success. What Emma doesn’t realize is that her laser focus in meddling in other peoples matrimonial affairs may well cause an unintended effect on her own blissful future.
Emma is a character that seems to get more popular, more assessable and somehow more relatable with time. To prove that point, the novel has been adapted to most every entertainment medium, included numerous film versions, epic and non-epic television series and mini-series, children’s novels’, radio episodes and of course the stage and all to varying degrees of success and authenticity to Ms. Austen’s heroine.
For their third full out production, Dead Writers Theatre Collective has chosen an unsteady adaptation by Michael Bloom to bring forth a vibrant, funny and exhilarating Emma. Masterfully directed by Jim Schneider, this version will literally envelop your very being as it oozes and drips authenticity at every gorgeous turn with the action taking place on a set created by newcomer Moon Jung Kim that will certainly be the talk of the theatre town for weeks and months to come.
More important, Mr. Schneider has done our artistic community a huge favor by introducing Chicago to someone who will surely become one the city’s go to actresses. As Emma, Heather Chrisler is a bit of a revelation. Her innate capabilities as an actress, coupled with Schneider’s innate mastery of this material has redefined Austen’s character for a new generation. Chrisler leads this talented cast through a complex vault of comedy, drama, loathing and victory, all in a character that as an archetype, we should hate but end of loving.
Chrisler’s performance is made all the better opposite Ben Muller’s Mr. Knightly, who knows when to push the throttle down and ease it up on his performance, which in another actors hands could be viewed and schmaltzy. The trifecta is made with Brandon Johnson as the deceiving Frank Churchill. (Anyone that had the privilege to see Mueller and Johnson work together in The Mystery of Irma Vep, know how this great acting duo makes all the other actors on stage rise to their level).
Here, each actor seems to add a nice modern twist to Austen’s penned version including Megan Delay who gives her Jane Fairfax an injection of Bette Midler; Maehan Looney is delectably brazen as Mrs. Elton, Kevin Sheehan brings some insufferable blithe humor as Mr. Elton and Hillary Sigale is comic perfection as Harriet Smith.
The attention to detail is unmistakably “Schneideresque” in this production. From the heightened posture of the actors, to the fine silver used the serve the tea, to the pitch perfect dialect of a very difficult English accent (kudos to coach Kendra Kargenian) there are few directors able to pull off this grand of an event. Costume designer Patti Roeder’s skills as an actor come forth in her choices as each outfit, whether male or female, help to define that character’s being. Jeffrey Levin’s original compositions and sound design are complex and gorgeous giving Mady Newfeld and Tammy Ravitts Bretscher’s dances an added brilliant authenticity.
To realize the full weight and impact that Austen, Bloom and Schneider hope realize (albeit reader or theatre patron) the actors need to and are expected to give 100 percent of themselves at every performance, which they clearly did not do in the second act of the showing I viewed. An audience member who is paying and giving up two and half hours of their lives to watch a performance deserves nothing less, nor does the creator forces who trusts the actor with their material.
That hiccup aside, Dead Writers Theatre Collective continues to prove that these masterpieces of literature are as relevant in today’s society as they were when first written. Jane Austen’s commentary on the rich and privileged, much like Charles Dickens, is an absolute mirror we can use on our current society as a whole. Though Emma may seem trite, all one has to do is look how Austen writes her main character juxtaposed to the underprivileged who once raised Emma and who now take pride and gratitude in the woman she has become while nearly begging her for food to eat. That is humility that we can all learn from. Those are the layers of any society that tends to humanize us all, and one in which we can look out our own window and watch unravel itself in real time.
Dead Writers Theatre Collective’s production of EMMA runs through May 25, 2014 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont St., Chicago. For tickets call the Stage 773 Box Office at 773.327.5252 or visit www.deadwriters.net. For calendar information and other critical reviews visit theatreinchicago.com