Brenda Withers (Mrs. Anne Weston), David Kelly (Mr. Weston), Amelia Pedlow (Emma Woodhouse), Carman Lacivita (Mr. Knightley), Sun Mee Chomet (Miss Bates), and Christine Weber (Jane Fairfax). Photo credit: Dan Norman

BY Erika Sasseville and Christine Sarkes, a daughter and mother review

There are times when you just need to roar your lungs out. Friday’s world premiere opening of Kate Hamill’s Emma at the Wurtele Thrust Stage, Guthrie Theater (now through August 21) was one of those nights for many of us. For a blissful few hours, the audience howled with laughter and yelled out hearty “yeahs” after a hard day of dealing with the news and the war against women now taking place. Hamill’s adaptation is an absolute marvel, a breathtaking work of comedic and feminist genius that we believe Jane Austen would be fiercely proud of. The poignancy of this opening night was not lost on the audience members who gave solemn “mhmms” along with boisterous cheers as the play demonstrated just how timeless are Jane Austen’s themes of gender/social inequity and ruling-class hypocrisy. Hamill has made a career of adapting Austen’s plays, making them accessible to modern audiences, drawing out the slapstick humor, while still remaining true to the spirit and the writing of Austen’s beloved books. Janeites will be hard pressed not to love the changes, additions and tweaks Hamill brings to Austen’s works in her adaptations.

For anyone not familiar with the plot, Emma Woodhouse is a beautiful, intelligent heiress, who lives with her doting, hypochondriac father. When her governess and sister leave to marry, she becomes bored and decides she will occupy herself by making a match for her new friend, the unsophisticated, Miss Harriet, much to the consternation of her lifelong friend and neighbor, Mr. Knightley. The book and play revolve around the characters in the village and Emma’s attempts to draw them into her matchmaking and her into theirs, in short. Mischief ensues, all is resolved happily.

We’ve seen and loved many of Hamill’s adaptations and we dare say this is the best one, in our humble opinion. Meta jokes, fourth-wall breaks, and anachronistic humor (I assure you that THESE reviewers thoroughly enjoyed it!) all serve to bring the audience into the story and give us permission to revel in the antics and feel the emotions of the characters more deeply than any adaptation of Emma thus far. Amelia Pedlow is captivating as the titular matchmaker Emma, mastering the art of audience engagement without missing a beat. Her interactions with the audience and the dreamy Carman Lacivita (Knightley), who is the only other character seeing the theater full of people as she does, are perfect examples of how tethered the characters are to each other. Samantha Steinmetz brings down the house with her athletic and hysterically funny portrayal of the sweet and misused Harriet Smith. Her comedic performance is one for the ages, and she is, as Director Meredith McDonough said as I chatted with her during intermission, “a gift to the American theater.” I bow to any playwright who can transform Harriet Smith from a tiresome, silly character into an hysterically funny, feminist creature who puts Emma in HER place!

Under McDonough’s direction, Emma creates a world where Regency Era fashion and societal norms mix indiscriminately and joyfully with 90s R&B, caboodles and boomboxes, hot pink Crocs, and the devastating reality that we still live in a world where a woman has fewer liberties than her male counterpart. The irreverent and joyous tone of the show carries into every aspect of the production. From the picturesque scenic design and tongue-in-cheek costuming choices (see above: pink Crocs) by Lex Liang, to the brilliant mix of Regency Era dancehall choreography and modern moves like the electric slide by Movement Director Emily Michaels King, this show sings with the intention to amaze and delight its audience. Every cast member deserves praise for the joy, physical humor and comedic timing they bring to their characters–Sun Mee Chomet had us in stitches as the reimagined ultimate cat lady, Miss Bates and Ryan Colbert was suitably smarmy and camp as Frank Churchill.

If you are not familiar with Kate Hamill’s previous works (Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women just to name a few), we’d recommend you catch them whenever the opportunity arises. She is a singular talent creating wonderful works of art and is definitely a playwright to keep your eyes on.  

Emma, by KATE HAMILL, based on the novel by JANE AUSTEN, directed by MEREDITH McDONOUGH. Now – August 21. Prices range from $15 to $80. Tel. 612.377.2224 (Box Office), Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Street.

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