Jane Austen. Her name spells theater magic in the 21st century. Stage an adaptation of one of her early 19th-century novels, and you will fill theater seats. Beyond Shakespeare, Austen is, in fact, surely the most widely recognized figure in English literature. So it’s no surprise that Cincinnati Shakespeare Company has embarked on its third production of an adaptation of an Austen novel. Emma is a sprightly — and audience-pleasing — romance that’s likely to sell as many tickets as the company’s previous productions of Pride and Prejudice (2011) and Sense and Sensibility (2012). Using Jon Jory’s quicksilver adaptations, with amusing characters and sparkling dialogue swirling and flowing by at a steady, good-natured pace, these shows have been surefire hits.
Staged by veteran company member Kelly Mengelkoch, Emma lives up to its predecessors, leaning heavily on Austen’s strong feminine appeal. Her novels are romances, first and foremost, and the ins and outs of love make them both heartwarming and circuitous paths to happiness. Austen’s central characters are usually feisty but moral women, strong-minded and judgmental. Men tend to be comic foils or love objects without so much depth, and their inner natures and motives are harder to perceive and predict.
Cincy Shakes’ acting company has a plethora of versatile female talent that serves this production especially well as they play the roles Austen created and Jory has so pithily distilled. First and foremost is Courtney Lucien as Emma Woodhouse, whose confidence in her matchmaking skills puts her in several pickles with friends and acquaintances as well as personally. Jory keeps us in Emma’s head with numerous asides to the audience (the stage darkens and Lucien — with her golden ringlets — comes to the front of the stage in a spotlight) in which we first hear Emma’s naïve belief in her ability to make love matches and then her dismay when her machinations fail to turn out as she had optimistically imagined.
In truth, Emma misses or misinterprets numerous hints, especially in her efforts on behalf of eager Harriet (Caitlin McWethy), who actually knows what’s best for her far more than Emma, as well as her own emotional paths with the charming Frank Churchill (Kyle Brumley) and steady, wise Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Dubin). Lucien plays Emma’s dismay in a smart but disarming way, often startled at how her judgment has failed her, but both effervescent and sure of her ability to dive back in and carry on.
McWethy’s Harriet is the picture of self-deference and modesty. (It’s remarkably distant from the cocky Joan of Arc she recently portrayed in Henry VI, demonstrating her range as an actress.) She often says as much with demeanor and facial expression as she does with the words she speaks, and her scenes with Lucien are heartfelt and sincere. We fear for her happiness and feel genuine relief when her situation resolves.
Miranda McGee brings her comic skills to a featured role, the status-conscious Mrs. Elton, who snatches up a hapless husband (Brent Vimtrup) and does her best to commandeer the lives of others. McGee turns a speech about arriving at a picnic, wearing a large bonnet and perhaps riding a donkey, into a laugh-out-loud moment.
Maggie Lou Rader plays Miss Bates, a nattering old maid with a heart of gold, giving her some genuine texture. Tess Talbot is her niece, Jane Fairfax, introverted but not quite shy. (She also has a fine musical moment with Brumley.) Corinne Mohlenhoff contributes gentle stability and reason to Emma’s tumultuous reactions to failed efforts.
Vimtrup’s Mr. Elton is an amusingly awkward prospect, while Brumley’s Frank Churchill positions himself as a likable prospect with considerable promise. Dubin’s Mr. Knightley is astute and forthright, but no romancer, so his evolution in the play’s conclusion is a bit of a surprise. Jim Hopkins plays Emma’s intransigent father with the bluster and affection typical of many of Austen’s father figures.
Mengelkoch’s staging of Emma keeps the action moving swiftly, as Jory’s script demands. Scenes flow seamlessly, one into the next, and a band of servants smoothly choreograph the delivery and removal of furniture without interrupting the action. The compact Restoration sitting room has been designed to be even smaller than Cincy Shakes’ compact performance space by Ensemble Theatre’s Brian c. Mehring; Matt Hollstegge created the lighting that supports the momentum from scene to scene.
This production of Emma amply demonstrates why Jane Austen’s appeal continues unabated: It’s a world of wit, good humor and — ultimately — happy outcomes.
EMMA, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through March 26.