This isn’t my Grandmother’s Emma nor is it my Emma, that was called Clueless back in the day. This is something that bridges those two versions with a dash of Moonlighting for good measure. While it is instantly recognizable as Jane Austen’s classic tale first published over 200 years ago, it nevertheless feels fresh and modern. Kate Hamill’s new adaptation, making its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater, stays true to the plot and spirit of Emma. It’s less of what it’s about, but more as how it goes about it. Inherent in the material are questions of gender politics and class, Hamill leans into those themes in a way that it speaks to our modern world, but never at the expense of the entertainment. Besides, surely enlightened politics make for enlightened entertainment. For all the romantic comings and goings, the misunderstandings, the twists of affections, this Emma is as Emma has always been, about it’s narrator, Emma. At the center of this production is Amelia Pedlow who will from this point on be “the” Emma, by which all others are measured. The Guthrie should have a summer hit on its hands with Emma, irreverent, joyful, witty, and with a central performance that assures you no one else could possibly have been cast.
Emma is a 21 year old woman who, when the play opens, is basking in self-adulation at her powers as a matchmaker, having in her mind been the sole instrument in bringing about the successful marriage of her tutor Anne Taylor and Mr. Weston. Being an intelligent woman, if not always a wise one, Emma needs something to occupy herself with and decides she is a brilliant matchmaker and shall proceed to make other matches. Emma’s main fault is that she never doubts herself, as such she is sometimes blind to what the realities of the world and the people around her are. Her first match will be for her newly acquired friend Harriet, whom she has decided should reject the man she is currently courting and in love with and instead be paired with the Vicar Mr. Elton. Because she has decided that Mr. Elton fancies Harriet, she is oblivious to the fact that he actually has his sights set on her. The only one who calls out Emma and implores her to stop meddling in other people’s affairs is her old friend Mr. Knightley. The story is populated with various characters, Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston’s son who has long been thought of as a good match for Emma, though they have never met until now. There is Miss Bates, who never met a silence she couldn’t fill, she looks after her elderly mother Mrs. Bates and runs a boarding school for girls. Her Niece, Jane Fairfax, is Emma’s one jealousy, not because she is smarter of prettier than Emma, but because others praise her, and Emma has a bit of trouble sharing the spotlight. Intelligent girls of a comparable age growing up in such close proximity of each other, they should have been best friends, but neither has any time for the other. This is a tale of romantic entanglements populated by group of strong characters usually at cross purposes with each other.
In a show as well cast as this one, you find yourself discussing who your favorites were after the show and you realize you’ve listed everyone but one, and then you realize that’s just because you forgot about that character momentarily, but they were really good too! Honestly, Sun Mee Chomet as Miss Bates constantly shouting things over and over to her mother is truly hilarious. Ryan Colbert as the Popinjay Frank Churchill is a wonderfully charming and sexy wild card. David Kelly, whom I’m just now realizing played both Emma’s Father Mr. Woodhouse and Mr. Weston. Mr. Woodhouse is a wonderfully eccentric gruel enthusiast, but a slight man. Mr. Weston seems to be a man of normal size and a hearty disposition. I never for a moment connected the two. Well done Mr. Kelly, well done. Samantha Steinmetz is the broadly comical Harriet Smith, her performance choices help to illustrate in shorthand the difference between how Emma sees the world and how it really is. Seriously, I have to stop because there’s nothing more boring than a list of every actor and how good they are. But I have to leave some room to sing the praises of Ms. Pedlow whom would surely have stolen the show if it wasn’t already hers. It’s hard to describe what it is about Pedlow until you realize it isn’t one thing, it’s everything. She gets this character, it would be easy to play Emma one way, but she plays her as a multifaceted person. Emma on paper can be unlikeable, the power of Austen’s writing and the successful portrayals of her is that her unlikeable characteristics are those she is unaware of, it’s her niavate that’s usually responsible for her worst behavior. Austen shows us her thoughts and so we see that she isn’t being thoughtless or unfeeling just oblivious to a point of view other than her own. In a performance the actor needs to bring an immense amount of charm and charisma. We have to get caught up in Emma’s enthusiasm, we have to believe in the moment that she is as infallible as she believes she is. Pedlow has us eating out of her hands the entire show. She is equally at home speaking directly to us in the audience as she is dancing like she’s in a nightclub. Her Emma has wit, intelligence, beauty and wields them all in service of her own belief that she is the best and brightest.
Meredith McDonough directs Kate Hamill’s brilliant script with the confidence of Emma herself. The show is perfectly paced, no scenes out stay their welcome nor does it ever seem rushed, though there is a sense of exhilaration and quick give and take in many scenes. Lex Liang’s Set Design and costumes help to place this in the past and the present simultaneously. I loved the background design of the houses on the hill and the clouds in the sky giving it the feel of a storybook or a Wes Anderson film. All in all one of the less elaborate sets I’ve seen at the Guthrie but it suited the production perfectly. I loved the look and feel of it and let’s face it, when you have Pedlow in the central role, you’re probably just throwing money away on elaborate sets, no one is going to take their eyes of her for long. Paul Toben’s Lighting Design nicely complimented the set, the changes in the sky were nice little touches of beauty.
Emma runs through August 21st in the Wurtele Thrust Stage for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.guthrietheater.org/shows-and-tickets/2021-2022-season/emma/.
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