Book-It Rep’s adaptation of “Emma,” the 1815 comedy of manners by Jane Austen, continues through Jan. 3 at Center Theatre at Seattle Center.
Book-It Repertory Theatre has held the Jane Austen theater franchise in Seattle since the troupe first brought “Pride and Prejudice” to the stage, in 2000. That show was such a hit, it has been revived here twice.
Book-It’s current mounting of “Emma” at Center Theatre marks the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication. It brings back the Rachel Atkins script Book-It introduced in 2009, and two leads from that production: the winning sprite Sylvie Davidson as meddling charmer Emma Woodhouse, and Brian Thompson as her gently addled papa.
What’s different this go-round? The director Carol Roscoe, the designers, most of the cast — and, disappointingly, a more sluggish tempo and an incongruent visual concept.
by Jane Austen, adapted by Rachel Atkins. Through Jan. 3 at Center Theatre, Seattle Center; $25-$50 (206-216-0833 or book-it.org)
Generally, Book-It’s style has meshed well with Austen’s sparkling, incisive, female-centric tales of early 19th century English rites of class, courtship and marriage.
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Who doesn’t love the pretty trimmings (including, here, Jocelyn Fowler’s splendid costumes)? The balls, the witty politesse? Also shining through Book-It’s versions of “P & P,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Persuasion” and “Emma” (all her major novels except “Mansfield Park” and “Northanger Abbey,” so far) are Austen’s keen social insights and cunning satire.
The title figure in “Emma” is unique among Austen heroines because she’s rich, strikingly pretty, roundly admired — a great catch, but in no rush to wed. Her wealth, position and self-satisfaction allow Emma the rare freedom to remain single. She can happily enjoy life caring for her dotty dad (Thompson, the perfect Austen paterfamilias), and communing with her longtime friend, the dashing, instructive squire Mr. Knightley (courtly Sylvester Foday Kamara).
For diversion, and charity, Emma plays the Lady Bountiful. She takes in hand Harriet Smith (the rubber-faced Meme Garcia), a gullible, awkward young woman of dubious parentage and little status.
Emma’s blithe matchmaking schemes, including one involving a smarmy minister, Mr. Elton (Jaryl Draper), naturally backfire. She misinterprets and misjudges people, and can be carelessly callous. But she also means well, and owns up to her faults. And in the end, after rounds of badminton and genteel partying and gossip over tea, all end up with the right partner — including Emma.
This is a comedy of manners, and depths. But while they flirt and chatter, the characters are planted in Andrea Bryn Bush’s symbolic, oddly sterile setting of a green lawn, with grass-covered topiary orbs (the size of beach balls) for seating, and tall doorways for framing. There’s much distracting hauling in and out of a chess set and a seesaw between scenes, but not a settee in sight.
Why? Roscoe explains in a program note that the set is a kind of playing field, a visual metaphor for the power disparities between society’s winners and losers. Literally, Emma holds a “privileged position on the field [that] actually limits her scope of understanding.”
Suggested by Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s book “Jane Austen, Game Theorist,” this may be intriguing intellectually. But it expresses little theatrically, and tells us little we don’t know. And it saps some of the vivacity Atkins’ highly verbal adaptation needs to keep the currents of comedy and moral inquiry in balance.
There’s more potent symbolism in the emphatic casting of actors of color. All Austen’s books are concerned with class and gender prejudice; racial bigotry is a natural extension.
After a slogging first half, “Emma” brightens more often with snatches of wit and dancing. Jots of vigor and humor are supplied most effectively by Garcia, Thompson, the radiantly smug Davidson, as well as Arjun Pande as a secretive swain and Christine Marie Brown as an obnoxious status-seeker. Yet at two hours and 40 minutes, this game feels like it’s gone into overtime.