Novelist Jane Austen was an unabashed fan of the home theatrical. She grew up performing in modest productions at her family’s fireside, wrote several satirical plays in her youth, and included an ill-fated at-home staging of “Lover’s Vows” in her penultimate novel, “Mansfield Park.” Michael Fry’s play-within-a-play adaptation of Austen’s “Emma,” running now through May 29 at The Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro, is most definitely good fun, but the Bag and Baggage production is also a smart take on a work penned by a woman with a flair for, and love of, the dramatic.
Austen famously worried that Emma Woodhouse, beautiful, smart, spoiled, rich, would be reviled by everyone but her creator. She could not have been more wrong. Emma has been beloved for centuries, in part because of her many faults. In her error-filled state, during which she nearly brings her best friend and protégé to ruin, she reminds us of ourselves, and her transformation over the course of the story from a naïve, narcissistic girl to a wise and generous woman, gives us hope that we, too, could have our own (spoiler alert) happy ending.
Most Valuable Performer: The honor must go to Clara-Liis Hillier, who, as Emma, is the perfect combination of maddeningly self-centered and completely lovable. A number of screen stars have brought Emma to life, including Kate Beckinsale, Romola Garai, and, perhaps most fittingly, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Hillier’s Emma is a worthy addition to that pantheon.
The show’s play-within-a-play framework necessitates a great deal of delightful double-casting, and Cassie Greer is hilarious as the sweet but dim Harriet Smith, the loquacious Miss Bates, and the conceited Mrs. Elton. The same can be said of Andrew Beck as Mr. Elton and Frank Churchill. Joey Copsey, charged with the difficult task of playing Mr. Knightley, arguably the dreamiest of all of Austen’s dreamboats, does so with admirable smolder and restraint, and, as Jane Fairfax, Mrs. Weston, and Mr. Woodhouse, Arianne Jacques is an adorable chameleon.
Lines of the Night: Austen, as her most die-hard fans know well, is a master of irony. She is at her best when poking fun at the many follies of man and woman, and her characters, though often well-meaning, are just as often self-deluded to the point of parody. Which is why Frank Churchill, consummate liar, can say, “I shall speak the truth as nothing suits me so well,” and Mrs. Elton, queen of the social climbers, may declare, with a straight face, “I have quite a horror of upstarts.”
“Emma” is a story of privilege. Nearly every character, excepting the Bateses and the orphaned Jane Fairfax, is a wealthy aristocrat who hasn’t known a day of hardship or hunger. Some first-time readers/watchers might be tricked into thinking that Austen, like Emma, is a snob, a shill for the rigid British class system in place at the time, but then one hears Frank Churchill lament, “Of all the horrid things, leave takings are the worst,” and it’s clear Austen is aiming her arrows directly at the hypocrisy and blindness such a system engenders.
Highlights: The set-up of this framed play is that five friends are putting on an impromptu performance of “Emma” in an attic strewn with suitcases and steamer trunks. The amateur “actors” begin book-in-hand and clothed in clumsy costumes that hardly fit them, let alone the period, but, as the show goes on, they begin to inhabit their characters fully, and the costumes, designed by Melissa Heller, likewise grow increasingly more sophisticated and period accurate. The change is gradual, subtle, and very cleverly done.
Low Note: All of Austen’s stories contain at least one ball, and, because she was writing in Regency-era England, dancing is a stand-in for the erotic. But this production runs nearly three hours, so spending even a little time on dancing, lovely as the choreography might be, seems a waste.
Best Tete a Tete: Sometimes, when one does not have a barouche landau at one’s disposal, one must stage an in-carriage marriage proposal on matching steamer trunks. Mr. Elton’s wine-propelled and pompous offer of marriage to Emma is one of the novel’s most awkward and cringe-inducing moments, but Hillier and Beck invest the moment with just the right amount of parody and slapstick, trunk hopping their way out of each other’s hearts and into ours.
Take-Away: Beauty, social station, and inherent keenness of intellect are all well and good, but they are no substitute for kindness and real understanding, which can only come when one is willing to face up to one’s flaws. Also, love, like theater, takes time and practice to get it right, and much of our lives is rehearsal for what is come.
— Deborah Kennedy, for The Oregonian/OregonLive
“Jane Austen’s Emma”
Where: The Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main St., Hillsboro
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays, through May 29
Tickets: $20-$30; 503-345-9590 or bagnbaggage.org