Review: ‘Emma’ makes audiences laugh at the Guthrie Theater

First, a retraction: A story about the Guthrie Theater’s long-delayed “Emma” said she “waltzes on stage” but it’s really “an electric slide on stage.”

Like all of Jane Austen’s work, Kate Hamill’s adaptation is theoretically set in the early 19th century. But in a bubbly staging by Meredith McDonough, it’s more like the present, with 10 characters oscillating between sipping tea 200 years ago and dancing to today’s Lizzo, Stevie Wonder and Boyz II Men. We wear a mask to avoid COVID. Another dons Crocs. The dances include the running man, the Nae Nae and — accompanying The Supremes’ “Baby Love” — a new one that’s part gavotte, part frug.

It is the work of movement director Emily Michaels King, star of this production even though she is not on stage. McDonough incorporates as much dancing as possible – emboldened, no doubt, by the fact that Austen’s characters would throw balls for any occasion (engagement, harvest, a sunset). The dancing is central to some scenes, a backdrop for others and a connecting device for still others and it’s always fun in an inventive and wacky way, especially when it involves Ryan Colbert, who plays two suitors. misfits (Robert Martin and Frank Churchill) but who can – as Miss Austen used to say – throw down.

Hamill’s world premiere adheres to Austen’s story about a woman who thinks she knows what’s best for everyone despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. But, truth be told, it doesn’t look much like Austen. While the writer’s gift was for innuendo and understatement, this “Emma” is brash (sometimes performers mistake volume for wit) and eager to please. But I think we can agree that the public is ready for the fun now.

Emma de Hamill takes us into her confidence, addressing us and even reproaching us for not having corrected her when she made a mistake. It’s a clever idea that makes us complicit in Emma’s wandering pairing. And, after a first act that bursts into cascades and performances bordering on aggression, these playful discourses give way to something deeper.

On opening night, just hours after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, one line about Emma – “She has practically no rights” – caught the public’s attention. Oh, there’s still some silliness in the second act but it comes with a side of tangy realism.

That’s when questions loom over the room – “Haven’t you got anything better to do with your time?”, “What will you do with all that education?” – knock on the house. Austen has positioned Emma’s meddling as the product of a quick wit abandoned in a society that has little need of it, but Hamill does better, showing how wealth and class fuel Emma’s dilettantism.

A pointed speech, delivered calmly by Brenda Withers as Emma’s former governess, highlights the dangers of privilege and leisure.

It may sound didactic, but “Emma” does well, partly because Amelia Pedlow delicately balances her character’s wit and torment, and partly because it’s so designed to bring joy. At one point, Sun Mee Chomet’s Miss Bates shouts, “We’re all ready to be charmed!” You should be prepared to be too.

‘Emma’
Who: By Kate Hamill, adapted from Jane Austen. Directed by Meredith McDonough.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue-Fri, 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sat., 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sun.
Where: 818 S. 2nd St., Deputies.
Tickets: $26-$80, 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org
Protocol: Mandatory masks.

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