Though not a “Janeite,” I’ve read Jane Austen novels, and had high hopes for the Lantern Theater Company’s staging of Emma — especially since they’ve launched a Jane Austen Festival (Oct. 11-15) around it, which is a great idea.
Unfortunately, Michael Bloom’s adaptation and Kathryn MacMillan’s production won’t swell the Janeite ranks.
Adapting novels for the stage — or any work from one medium to another — is risky business, as Bloom’s script shows. The play’s conclusion, for instance — no secret, really, for anyone who’s seen Clueless or another film adaptation, or read the program notes, or pays attention to character names and realizes that “Knightley” will live up to his — occurs about 20 minutes from the end of the nearly three-hour play. Three more dramatically anticlimactic scenes, plus their scene changes, follow.
Events — and those mind-numbing furniture-rearranging changes — give the sense that every moment in the novel has been included for accuracy. And while Emma (Lauren Sowa, shown left) occasionally narrates in asides to the audience, action unfolds at a leisurely pace.
Sowa captures Emma’s youthful egotism — “Is there anything so glorious as being proved in the right?” she crows about a bit of matchmaking, which she mistakenly considers her special talent — but she never becomes the complicated heroine who grows through self-realization. She and other youthful leads — Jake Blouch as Frank Churchill, Harry Smith as Mr. Knightley, Lee Minora as Jane Fairfax, Angela Smith (shown, right) as Harriet and Mrs. Elton — seem like teens playing dress-up alongside seasoned veterans Charlotte Northeast and Peter DeLaurier, whose mastery of the period’s style and accents appears effortless. The older actors are also adept at making crusty characters likable, which the younger actors don’t do in romantic roles. DeLaurier’s curmudgeonly Mr. Woodhouse (Emma’s hypochondriac father) and Northeast’s brittle Miss Bates are the evening’s most memorable and enjoyable characters.
They achieve this despite a production that forces awkwardly quick costume changes: Most of the cast members play multiple roles, sometimes leaving a scene and rushing back a moment later as another character, even though one actor is added only as a silent dance partner. The script calls for two more actors, so this extra difficulty might result from an attempt to save on salaries.
Alisa Sickora Kleckner’s costumes seem similarly haphazard. I’m no expert on Regency-era fashion, but I can see when a dress puffs out awkwardly, appears a wrinkled mess, or covers strange, lumpy shapes, and can’t help but notice when Emma praises the elegance of a character whose dresses are frumpy and shapeless. I can also see when a man’s sleeves hang too low, and when an aristocrat’s boots look like cheap galoshes.
Even the loveliness of Dirk Durossette’s fanciful set — representing Surrey, “the gar-den of England,” and various rooms in the village of Highbury, with the audience on three sides — is compromised, its plank floor marred by constellations of colored tape used to mark where furniture is set. The script forces all those scene changes, but there are easy ways to make them less cumbersome and distracting. And what’s with that ugly green wash in Shelley Hicklin’s otherwise sunny lighting?
By the end of Emma’s nearly three hours, the commitment should pay off in meaningful revelations, sparkling moments and genuine emotions, all of Shakespearean comedy proportions, but nothing comes close. I suspect Janeites will want to love it anyway, but they’ll better recruit fans to their ranks with the novel.
Through Oct. 27, $10-$38, St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow St., 215-829-0395, lanterntheater.org.