Review: “Emma” (Dead Writers Theatre Collective)

Pictured L-R: Heather Chisler and Ben Muller (Photo by Michael Brosilow Photography)
Pictured L-R: Heather Chisler and Ben Muller
(Photo by Michael Brosilow Photography)

Show: Emma

Company: Dead Writers Theatre Collective

Venue: Stage 773 Proscenium

Die Roll: 2

The woman with whom I attended this past Sunday’s performance of “Emma” told me that Jane Austen’s books lead women to have unrealistic expectations in men.  I cannot speak to that, myself.  However, what I can do is say that this adaptation by Michael Bloom of Austen’s story, under the direction of Jim Schneider, sets the bar high for productions of her work on the stage.  Although not too high to be out of reach.

It is the tale of a young lady who somehow gets the misconceived notion that she’s good at matchmaking.  The young woman is the very Emma for whom the play is named.  It is a part that challenges an actress to go through a good amount of growth from precocious, spoiled youth to an adult woman who has dealt with the fact that she has caused others pain, despite not truly understanding the effects of her behavior.  Heather Chrisler is up to the task, and takes the audience through stages of Emma’s development in such a way that she remains in our esteem despite the trouble she causes, and she blossoms through moments of self awareness that are held properly in check by the reservedness of the Regency era.

While it is a sizable part, and almost none of the play occurs while Emma is offstage (even the recorded curtain speech prior to the show is in her voice, and all about her), the actor who shines most is Ben Muller, who plays Mr. George Knightly.  Muller is an expert study in what an actor should be doing in every moment.  There is not a second that he isn’t engaged and engaging.

As a director, myself, one of the things that I love about theatre (as opposed to film or television) is that you can see everything that is going on at all times (limited, of course, to what is presented on the stage).  By this I mean that in a film you may only see one person’s expression.  Certainly you only see exactly what the director wants you to focus upon.  In theatre, you can look wherever you like on the stage, and therefore you get a bigger picture (literally) of what’s going on.  Many of the moments that I really loved in “Emma” were those glimpses of what else is going on while the main action continues.  Muller supplied an earnest and beautiful through-line each time his character was on the stage.  While his movement was stilted and stiff in the manner appropriate to the time and society with which he found himself, he flowed from moment to moment believably in every regard.

Such constant dedication to her character was also present in Hillary Sigale’s performance of Ms. Harriet Smith.  And some of the show’s funniest moments and most poignant instances were provided by her.  To watch Ms. Harriet Smith sneak pieces of cake in the background of a scene involving a social visit to one of Emma’s less well-off families is funny.  To see Muller and Sigale brought together in what can best be described as an act of charity and chivalry during a ball at Emma’s family home was perhaps the high point of the play.

Such attention to detail had to have been in the plan for Schneider’s production.  Sadly, though, it didn’t always come through in other places.  At issue here is the set.  The interior settings were terrific.  A combination of sliding wagons and periaktoi made transitions go really smoothly.  And the realism of the set was maintained throughout the various domiciles visited within the action of the play.  Yet, the exterior segments of the play (in the garden, on a picnic, etc.) were disappointing because the paint job was so wholly removed from reality.  In a play that was otherwise really exact in its detail, the paint job and lack of 3 dimensions in the exterior scenes was jarring enough to momentarily pull me from the world being created on the stage.

This play is based on a classic piece of literature, so I don’t believe it is a spoiler for me to tell you that Emma tries to set up multiple people with each other in romantic situations, and each one fails to happen.  Even her own attempts at romance are thwarted by the one actual romance that occurs during the play (and in which she plays no guiding role).  And yet, somehow, by the end, Emma ends up with the man who she naturally should in a Jane Austen world.  Knightly, a good and honest man who has been there all along , gets the girl.  And because we like him, we are happy, regardless of the fact that Emma herself doesn’t truly seem to have many redeeming qualities.

Other actors who made a huge impression:  Maeghan Looney was exactly right as the despicable Mrs. Elton, and Joyce Saxon brought a wonderful energy to Mrs. Bates.

Finally, a quick mention of the actors who played the servants… In a lot of plays right now, there’s a lot of effort put into the scene changes.  So much so that they almost become little productions unto themselves.  This was the first play that I’ve seen this year that is so scene change heavy, and yet I was not once distracted by them.  The servants played minor roles throughout, but it was during the breaks between the action that they were most impressive.  When the lights dimmed, everything switched quickly and efficiently, and took on an air of professionalism and expertise.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Austen’s matchmaker somehow gets man far better than she deserves.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”