Author: novel by Jane Austen, stage adaptation by Phil Timberlake
At: Lifeline Theatre Company, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. Tickets: lifelinetheatre.com or 773-761-4477; $20-$40. Runs through: July 14
Lifeline Theatre's Emma is charming and ridiculous in the best waybut my favorite thing about this adaptation from author Phil Timberlake and director Elise Kauzlaric is how much trust they put in their audience. The cast and artistic team put on so many hats to ensure this nimble production doesn't waste a second of stage time, you'll have to forgive me gushing on their behalf.
With one successfully matched couple married, young Emma Woodhouse ( Emma Sipora Tyler ) considers herself the premier matchmaker for all the singles in her wealthy 19th-century village. But all of the unfounded confidence in the world can't help Emma's matches from backfiring. Her efforts to help Harriet Smith ( Madeline Pell ) marry up have led to social chaos, and her own attempts to court Frank Churchill ( Peter Gertas ) are thwarted by an unwitting rival Jane Fairfax ( Jeri Marshall ). Mr. Knightly ( Cory David Williamson ) is the only man who can stop Emma's meddling and help her restore mangled friendships, but he harbors romantic secrets of his own.
To portray a sprawling community of notables with only five actors, this Emma adopts a 'role-share' program that allows anyone to pick up a prop or a mannerism and step into a character for a moment. Regardless of what sort of lady or gentleman that person was in the seconds preceding, if an actor is handed a cane, that person stoop over, puts some gravel in his/her voice and become Emma's elderly father. Snap open the tines of a fabric fan, and the actor is a venom-dripping Mrs. Elton, or stand next to a rolling dress form and that person becomes both Ms. Bates, and her mother, Mrs. Bates, who can't hear a blasted thing.
Director Elise Kauzlaric has done an amazing service to this sweet show. The "role-share" style of performance is not only inherently fun, but it showcases actors in ways they might never be seen in more traditional stagings. Where else could we ever see performer Jeri Marshall shine as both the reserved and secretive Jane Fairfax, and as Emma's concerned/doddering father? How else could we know that actor Peter Gertas is equally well-equipped to play the consummate romantic reject Mr. Elton and his own eventual wife, Mrs. Elton? The standout for me was Madeline Pell, who makes each role she steps into so distinct, I wouldn't mind a production of Emma with her magically spliced into every role.
The production goes by with such perfect manners, that when real emotional depths appear, it's truly affecting to watch them unfold. Emma Sipora Tyler, as Emma, and Cory David Williamson, as Mr. Knightly, deliver a knockout culminating scene that is so genuine, you may catch some feelings of your own.