Like all her novels, Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, “Emma,” is a comedy of manners set in Georgian-Regency England. The title character, however, is unlike any of Austen’s other heroines in that Emma is pretty, smart and rich, but also strong-minded, overindulged and rather full of herself.
Because a woman’s goal and main occupation at that time focused on landing a good husband, Emma is also unlike her peers. While she fancies herself an accomplished matchmaker for other young women, Emma isn’t particularly interested in marriage herself. As one of the self-entitled, she finds meddling in other people’s lives more fun and fulfilling than minding her own business.
At Lifeline Theatre, ensemble member and accomplished playwright, Phil Timberlake, has captured Austen’s irrepressible spirit in his fast-paced, highly creative adaptation and each of the novel’s major characters are brought to life under the sharp direction of Elise Kauzlaric.
Austen fans will understand that any theatrical interpretation will include copious amounts of stilted, witty conversation, and will stress character over plot. In this respect, audiences won’t be disappointed.
But Kauzlaric’s production is truly remarkable. It’s highly inventive, casting only five talented, energetic and versatile young actors to portray every major character in this story.
This is often accomplished by merely re-entering through a doorway, rounding a pillar or simply turning on a dime. This gifted ensemble seldom relies on new costume pieces to change persona. Instead, they employ a slight physical adjustment, a vocal change or grab an identifying prop, such as a walking stick, a fan or pair of spectacles, to signal a new character. Sometimes, an actor will even play a two character scene with himself, switching back and forth between lines of dialogue. Much of the production’s humor arises from these amazingly speedy personality conversions.
The technical support for this play is top drawer. Sarah Lewis’ modest, yet versatile scenic design works well on the tiny Lifeline stage. The pastel palette and Impressionistic style she’s chosen immediately harkens back to a simpler time and place.
Aly Renee Amidei’s sumptuous costumes provide additional visuals in texture, color and variety and Diane Fairchild’s lighting design beautifully bathes her cast in the soft, Regency Era illumination of English gardens and drawing rooms. Andrew Hansen’s period-perfect pianoforte sound design sets the right tone with his original compositions, particularly during the production’s ball sequences.
In the title role, Emma Sipora Tyler nicely commandeers and grounds the play. As Actor 1, Tyler is the only performer who portrays a single character
As Emma Woodhouse, she is everything Jane Austen describes in her novel: handsome, clever and rich. And she’s a constant, a graceful and articulate catalyst who provokes and inspires the rest of the characters.
Emma is also spoiled, headstrong and greatly overestimates her talent as a matchmaker. As a somewhat unlikable leading character, Tyler plays someone who’s blind to the calamities of how meddling in other people’s lives often leads her astray.
During this weekend’s performances, multi-talented, boyishly-handsome Royen Kent effortlessly steps into the many roles usually played by Cory David Williamson, as Actor 2.
Kent plays George Knightly with a proper, bemused attitude that allows him to observe Emma’s machinations and offer a gentle scolding whenever needed. However, where Kent truly excels is in his lightning-fast transformations, in which he suddenly becomes many other strong characters, male and female.
Another standout is Madeline Pell as sweet, innocent Harriet Smith. She’s been taken under Emma’s wing as her next matchmaking project but Harriet is continually disappointed as the brunt of her friend’s foiled efforts.\
Last seen as humorous Mrs. Whatsit in Lifeline’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” Pell is, once again, extraordinary. As Actor 4 she quickly shifts from character to character
For instance, as the eccentric spinster, Miss Bates, Pell shares some of her funniest scenes with an antique mannequin that stands in for her character’s elderly mother.
As Actor 3, Peter Gertas ably plays most of the male characters in this story. He’s equally mesmerizing and competent portraying Mr. Elton, Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston, John Knightly, sometimes elderly Mr. Woodhouse and even some of the fluttering female characters.
Lovely Jeri Marshall is proficient in the roles relegated to Actor 5. She beautifully plays Emma’s beloved governess and friend, Miss Taylor, along with shy, reticent Jane Fairfax. But where Marshall really stands out is in her hilarious, over-the-top portrayal of Augusta Hawkins, Mr. Elton’s wealthy, but pretentious, boastful and boorish new wife.
For fans of Jane Austen’s work, this two-hour visit to fictional Highbury, England, will enchant and entertain.
Although many theatergoers may only know this story from the more modern, 1995 film adaptation, “Clueless,” or the 1996 period comed, that starred Gwyneth Paltrow, Timberlake’s adaptation breathes new life into this story.
He makes the somewhat complicated tale about a self-entitled busybody amusing, honest and authentic. And, the greatest achievement of Kauzlaric’s loving production, the play is bound to inspire new readers to pick up this novel while motivating diehard Jane Austen fans to revisit this, and her other novels. Bravo!
DETAILS: “Emma” is at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood, Chicago., through July 14, 2019. Running time: 2 hours with one intermission. For tickets and other information call (773) 761-4477 or visit Lifeline Theatre.
For more shows visit Theatre In Chicago.