by CHRISTINE SARKES SASSEVILLE
For Jane Austen fans and readers of her romantic novel, Emma, the central challenge is to overcome your distaste for Emma’s patronizing, meddling matchmaking in order to understand the onerous class distinctions that characterized everyday interactions between neighbors, family members and friends in the early 1800s. For local playwrights, Savage Umbrella’s Laura Leffler-McCabe and Tanner Curl, the question is boiled down to this: Is Emma Woodhouse a bitch or not? Clearly, the writers have settled the matter in their own minds at least in this modern reimagining of the Austen classic, Emma Woodhouse Is Not A Bitch, now at the Cedar Riverside People’s Center Theater through February 23. Audience members are invited to cast their votes, placing candy hearts in bowls labeled “Bitch” or “Not a Bitch.” The writers, who also serve as Artistic Director (Leffler-McCabe) and lead actor (Curl), set the romantic comedy in present day Minnesota to focus on the “comparisons and questions that arise as we look at this story through our contemporary lens, in light of the 99%, the 47%…etc.” Class distinctions have become a struggle between the haves (or the “Lucky Sperm Club” as Curl’s George Knightley retorts) and the have-nots; between the celebrity and non-celebrity in a celebrity-obsessed world; and between those with ruthless ambition and those with simpler notions of success. The writers add local flavor through references to Minnesota towns and hot spots.
The modern take on the classic is very clever and entertaining. Props to the writers for giving familiar characters new, contemporary lives while staying true to Austen’s original plot and character development. Emma Woodhouse (an enthusiastic and able Kathryn Fumie) is now a financially independent socialite, secure in a close-knit social circle, but bored of the endless social events that comprise her daily life. She immediately sets her sights on a waitress/clothes designer she meets at a wedding and makes Harriet Smith (Hannah K. Holman) her new “project.” Austen’s orphaned Harriet becomes a superficial, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed tattoo artist with vague fashion-designer ambitions, eager to please her new benefactress. She is in a relationship with fellow waitress Bobbi Martin (Parker Genné), but that doesn’t stop Emma from trying to fix her up with her friend, Phillip Elton (Russ Dugger), who himself has designs on Emma. The remainder of the play follows Austen’s plot fairly closely with love triangles, disappointed hopes and Emma’s meddling causing increasing mischief that impacts nearly everyone she knows. The voice of reason throughout is Emma’s longtime friend, George Knightley, who in the end declares his love for the imperfect and newly humbled and contrite Emma.
As a Jane Austen fan, I enjoyed the new character twists: smarmy Mr. Elton as a used-car salesman; his new wife, played as a mean-girl, boozing, pill-popping social climber (a very funny and campy Heidi Jedlicka); Frank Churchill (Mason Mahoney) as a closeted gay man; and Emma’s sister, Isabella (Taous Claire Khazem), as highly strung helicopter mom. In sum, this well-acted and clever adaptation is a satisfying treat for Jane Austen fans!
I have a few minor issues with the production values and staging in the admittedly challenging theater set. The creaky floors may have been behind the distracting and unnatural slow-motion movement of characters entering and leaving the main stage. Several scenes took place in balconies above the stage where acoustics were an issue.
Emma Woodhouse Is Not A Bitch, by Laura Leffler-McCabe and Tanner Curl, Directed by Blake E. Bolan. At the Cedar Riverside People’s Center Theatre, 425 20th Ave S., Minneapolis. February 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10, 15, 16, 17, 18, 21, 22, 23 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $12-20, sliding scale (no one turned away for lack of funds) at http://emmawoodhouse.brownpapertickets.com. For more info: firstname.lastname@example.org.