A PERSUASIVE ADAPTATION OF AUSTEN’S CLASSIC
How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been! How eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence! She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning. The Narrator on Anne Elliot, Persuasion, Chapter 4
Eloquent is the perfect word to describe my experience at the Book-It Repertory Theatre production of the new adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion, on Sunday last. The smell of the grease paint – and all that – got my heart racing again, bringing back fond memories of my many years associated with marketing of a grand opera company. Sigh. There is just no substitute for the excitement and thrill of a live production. None! So people, forget the comforts of your sofa and support your local arts organization. You won’t regret it!
Ok, off my high horse and back to the play, which the local critic of the Seattle PI thought “sneakily captivating“, and I heartily concur. Having read the novel and seen the movie adaptations, that complement was not quite a surprise to me; but I was relieved that the adaptors, Jen Taylor and Colin Bryne, had included enough of Jane Austen’s intensions so that all levels of Austen fans or non-fans could pick it up.
The first five minutes of any production are always a struggle for me. I am always suspect, needing to be drawn into the enchantment of the story and characters before I can be taken away into that special make-believe world of live theater. My hesitant resistance to the dialogue lingered a bit longer. Where was Jane Austen’s prose? The characters and plot were the same, but the language? I concede sincere attachment to the novel, and may be too close to be objective, – but this did disappoint.
The audience, including other members of my group from the Jane Austen web site, The Republic of Pemberely, were attentive and laughed in the right places. In fact, I had not remembered Persuasion being quite so funny, but there it was. A tragic love story that made them laugh-out-loud? Hmm? My sensibilites were perplexed. My indignation was rising.
I know that I am a severe critic having been warped by years of quivering over opera reviews, but I willed myself into enjoyment, and purposely set aside my magnifying glass and overlooked some the costume and stage prop blunders to focus on the acting, which was quite impressive. This is a first rate repertory theatre of seasoned and skilled professionals, aptly cast and decisively directed by Myra Platt. Chiara Motley who portrayed Anne Elliot was a lovely willowy thing; dutiful, sensitive, and patient. All the qualities that we expect in Jane Austen’s most stoic heroine.
By the time of our hero Captain Wentworth’s (John Bogar) entrance into the Musgrove household, I had forgotten my qualms about dialogue and was enthralled in the story. He was a dashing Wentworth, with a captivating stage presence. Hurrah! Actually, he had me after his first line. The voice was velvety and authoritative, and that just wrapped it up nicely for me. Here was a Wentworth worthy of our heroine pining away eight years for.
We see some surprising artistic license taken by the adaptors in respect to Anne’s pompous father Sir Walter Elliot, (Kevin McKeon), and her social climbing sister Elizabeth Elliot (Kate Czajkowski). In the novel and movie adaptations, our patience is tested by that supercilious and cynical pair of spendthrifts to the point of abhorrence, but here, they have evolved into lighter more comedic caricatures. Their dialogue plays off each other like tennis volleys, and one is reminded of the socialite banter from a Noel Coward satirical play of the 1920’s. The humor was a relief, but I fear that it lessens Anne Elliot’s pitiable situation. One finds it much easer to laugh off their condescension and snobbery, then to deal with the stark reality of her actual life with them portrayed in the novel and movies.
Within the talented ensemble cast, two performances were standouts in my mind, and both had plum roles to reincarnate; the dotty Mary Musgrove, (Carol Roscoe) played with great energy and comedic timing, and the tragic Captain Benwick, (Jamie Rush), sensitively played by a promising young actor whose brief dialogue I remember more for its prominent pauses, than content. This was a welcome relief after a few lost moments from previously rushed scenes.
Kudos to the creative staff and cast of a clever and effective adaptation of one of Jane Austen’s most tender novels. You pierced my soul! Of note, was the attendance of members of the local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America who had generously under-written the cost of the costumes for the production. Bravo JASNA!
The matinee performance was a sell-out, which is the best remedy for a struggling repertory company, who deserve a far better venue to perform in than the constraints of the Center House Theater at Seattle Center. Ah…the financial challenges of a nonprofit arts organization. That I don’t miss!
Update! New review from the Seattle Times theater critic who cleverly includes her critique in a letter to Jane Austen!