Review: 'Emma' -- When does a story become theater?
Can a stage adaptation be too faithful to the book it's taken from? The version of Jane Austen's venerable "Emma," now in a Lantern Theater Company production, makes the case that it can. Despite solid staging by Lantern's associate artistic director, Kathryn MacMillan, and a cast that's clearly game for the early-19th century, "Emma" feels more like a novel than a fluid piece of theater.
Michael Bloom wrote this adaptation three years ago, when he was artistic director of Cleveland Play House, where it had a world premiere. He sticks closely to the book. I could find only two characters missing -- they are parents of one of the major characters, and their place on Bloom's cutting-room floor does nothing to impact Austen's story, published in 1816. Bloom's obvious determination to represent her work as closely as possible, which makes this stage version just short of three hours, will be much applauded by the many fans of "Emma" and of Austen in general. No one can argue that he weakens the tale.
But he didn't come up with a particularly theatrical script -- an idea that may have been easier to accomplish in film and TV adaptations using Britain's manor houses and lush outdoors as accessories to the unfolding story. What we get here is the book's dialogue, or some of the narrative in the form of dialogue. For me, that's a stilted affair -- all of the meat for sure, but not necessarily the trimmings. The play turns "Emma" into a cousin of a daytime serial; it's a compilation of fairly short scenes in which little buds of plot bloom suddenly, and it seems to be done in soap-opera closeups, even though your perspective from the audience is at the typical eye's length. This is because there's not all that much movement on the stage -- nor is it called for -- and at times it feels as though we could close our eyes and be listening to, say, a version of the book on disc.
That said, I'd be remiss to imply that Lantern's production is at fault. MacMillan handles the large number of characters well, although when you use someone like Jake Blouch, an actor with a singular presence, in two roles, you'd better prepare to change more than just his costume to avoid initial confusion.
Lauren Sowa, who has played in some Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre productions, makes an excellent Emma, transmitting all the coyness, naivete and judgmental qualities the character embodies. She's just a girl who can't stay out of other people's business although she hasn't really got her own in order -- a paradox you can see in Sowa's body language, but mostly in her eyes. Blouch makes for a charming Frank Churchill, the guy Emma begins to fall for after forswearing men in general. Harry Smith is the man she spars with in friendship, and Trevor William Fayle is the vicar who falls for her.
Charlotte Northeast does two fine turns -- one as the poor Miss Bates, who has fallen from her station into poverty, and the other as Emma's former governess, now married to a family friend (Nathan Foley). Angela Smith also plays two roles: the impressionable Harriet, who is led by Emma's hand, and the haughty wife the vicar eventually marries. Lee Minora is the mysterious woman who is staying in the village and Peter DeLaurier has the thankless task of playing Emma's father, a one-note character whose lot in life (at least in the play) is to caution everyone he sees to beware of chills and marriage.
They all bring their characters alive by building them well, and are dressed in fun finery by Alisa Sickora Kleckner.
"Emma," a production of Lantern Theater Company, is extended through Nov. 3 at St. Stephen's Theater, at 10th and Ludlow Streets, between Market and Chestnut. 215-829-0395 or www.lanterntheater.org.