Saturday, March 13, 2010


‘EMMA’ enchants at Cleveland Play House

Jane Austen is considered one of the best authors of English language romantic comedies. Her book ‘EMMA’ which has been adapted by Cleveland Play House’s Artistic Director, Michael Bloom, into a play format, is now on stage at CPH.

Director Peter Amster, who so brilliantly staged last year’s CPH production of ‘PRIDE AND PREJUDICE,’ has again configured a charming version of a classic tale. He seems to have a magical touch with making good scripts visually attractive and purposeful.

Many know ‘EMMA’ by the author’s explanation of the plot’s title character: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will like much.” In that statement she introduces Emma Woodhouse, a beautiful, clever, spoiled and self-centered know-it-all. Emma is an expert on matchmaking, at least she thinks she is an expert. As we find out, she misses out on the most important matchmaking, her own! We watch as many of her schemes go awry, leading to both humor and awe.

‘EMMA’ is more character than plot driven. This made Bloom’s task of whittling down the interweavings of persons difficult. How can so many people each be developed so that the audience keeps them all in mind? Bloom nicely succeeds.

Characters abound. Besides Emma, there is Mr. George Knightley, a close friend of the lead character, and seemingly, her only critic. In reality, as we find out, he cares deeply for her. Then there is Frank Churchill, whom at one point Emma thinks she may love, and Jane Fairfax, a very beautiful, clever, and elegant woman, with the best of manners. She is the sole person that Emma envies. Next, Harriet Smith, a young friend of Emma's, is a very pretty but unsophisticated girl who is too easily led by others, especially Emma. And, the list goes on and on.

In order for this play to succeed, all of the characterizations need to be well honed. And, fortunately, in the CPH production, the performers are up to the task. Scene after scene is charming and witty. The movements and machinations are well formatted by Amster.

Though she could have made a more transparent transition from know-it-all to woman-in-love, Sarah Nealis is charming as Emma. The scene where she runs and leaps through the garden, squealing like a freed animal, while Mr. Knightley asks her father for her hand in marriage, is a delight.

Mark Montgomery is properly aloof as Knightley. Patrick Clear is wonderful as Emma’s hypochondriac father. This is one talented and meaningful cast.

Robert Mark Morgan’s classic set is beautiful and Kristine Kearney’s costumes are era perfect.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: CPH’s ‘EMMA’ is a classic production of a classic book. Michael Bloom’s adaptation works well. Peter Amster’s direction is spot on. The acting is universally excellent. For anyone who appreciates good theatre, ‘EMMA’ is a must see.