Chicago Theater Review: EMMA (Dead Writers Theatre Collective at Stage 773)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 24, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


In the social maze of Regency England, where any successful matrimony required sexual politics and emotional intrigue, novelist Jane Austen understood how love gets lost. There were too many artful simulations of actual affection for the real deal to compete. Hard as it is to find love for oneself, 21-year-old Emma Woodhouse, the conditional heroine of Austen’s mistress-piece, doubles the risk by seeking it for others. The follies that follow are immortally illustrated in the novel, as they were in the updated celluloid spinoff Clueless and the impeccable 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow as a too-certain Emma. The same holds, at least if you know where to look, in Michael Bloom’s stalwart 140-minute adaptation, Dead Writers Theatre Collective’s annual spring fling.

The cast of EMMA by Dead Writers Theatre Collective at Stage 773.The canvas for this elaborate mating dance could hardly prove more sumptuous, beautifully painted with Patti Roeder’s gorgeous and abundant Empire costumes, resplendent finery that’s a time trip in itself. Add to that labor of love Moon Jung Kim’s supple sliding sets, the sumptuous decoration of the assorted chambers of Hartfield House and rural walks, and vintage wigs and sculptured floral arrangements. Finally, you can relish the wonderfully recreated dances for the Surrey country balls and a Mozartean “musicale” as shaped by Mady Newfield and Tammy Ravitts Bretscher.

Heather Chrisler (second from right) and cast in EMMA by Dead Writers Theatre Collective at Stage 773.This visual feast almost overshadows the plot, assiduously narrated by Heather Chrisler as the title character. Indulged into an unearned sense of emotional entitlement, Emma never intends to marry but will match up her unassuming friend Harriet Smith (Hillary Sigale, ironically an Alicia Silverstone lookalike), just as she successfully mated the seemingly incompatible Westons (Brad Davidson and Lorelei Sturm). Perversely, Emma industriously discourages Harriet’s natural inclination to the equally stolid Robert Martin (Nick Bonges) and directs her instead toward snobbish Rev. Philip Elton (Kevin Sheehan). Unaware of Emma’s secret script for his inevitable happiness, Elton rejects dour Harriet to marry the insufferably elitist Mrs. Elton (Maeghan Looney in fine flourish).

Heather Chrisler, Ben Muller, and Brad Davidson in EMMA by Dead Writers Theatre Collective at Stage 773.So intent on the meddling she calls matchmaking, Emma is blinded by jealousy, pride, and prejudice to her own best prospects: She mistakes the attentions of the suave Frank Church (Brandon Johnson) for amorous sincerity. Her narcissism digs a new low at the infamous Box Hill picnic when, envious of agreeable Jane Fairfax (Megan Delay), Emma gratuitously insults Jane’s poor aunt Miss Bates (the very vulnerable Sara Minton). For cruelly mocking this chatterbox of a ninny, Emma wins a perfectly deserved dressing down from the man who, aside from Emma’s hypochondriac father (Jerry Bloom), knows her best and has her greater good in mind.

Heather Chrisler and Ben Muller in EMMA by Dead Writers Theatre Collective at Stage 773.That, of course, is her childhood companion George Knightly (Ben Muller, morphing from a surrogate brother who’s Emma’s “better angel” to an unexpected lover who may be her last chance). So willful at knowing the hearts of others in the hamlet of Highbury, Emma is ignorant—nay, clueless–of her own future fortune.

That moment of truth, so wonderful in the 1996 film, falls a tad flat in Bloom’s adaptation and Jim Schneider’s staging. Their dramatization pursues so many tangents that it neglects to prep us for the absolute rightness of this once and future liaison. We’re not exactly rooting for Emma’s happiness or Knightly’s truth-telling, so manipulative and calculating has she been and so impassive and unengaged has he seemed.

Still, the unstoppable magic works its spells as effortlessly as ever. The casting is character-close and the look is lovely. This is Jane Austen, the most theatrical novelist ever.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Dead Writers Theatre Collective
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30 pm, Sun at 2:30 pm
scheduled to end on May 25, 2014
for tickets, call 773-327.5252 or visit

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