Emma by the Lantern Theater Company, Philadelphia. It was spectacular! While determined to see it, I felt some trepidation, having been more disappointing than enthused by the production of Pride & Prejudice adapted by Jon Jury of Actor's Theater of Louisville, which I saw performed at Actors in 2008 (just a few months before I started blogging, which unfortunately means I have no record of my thoughts from the time). My concerns were needless. This Michael Bloom adaptation is pretty much everything I could hope for in an Emma play. Combined with stellar acting, beautiful direction, innovative costuming (particularly for the ladies), and smart set design, it was one of the most gratifying theatrical experiences I have ever had, and it has been one of the great privileges of my life to see some of the finest productions in the world.
My joy in this show might somewhat be attributable to the heavy influence of the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow movie, which is my preferred Emma. I perceived the similarities right off the bat, particularly in the hair styling: the elegant ladies (Emma, Mrs. Weston, and later Jane Fairfax) coiffed in a more controlled, Victorian manner, while the curls associated with the Regency were only worn by the less refined (Harriet Smith, Miss Bates, Mrs. Elton), just as in Douglas McGrath's film. Then Miss Bates appeared (portrayed by Charlotte Northeast, who was also Mrs. Weston), and it was almost as if Sophy Thompson herself had walked onto stage, complete with monosyllabic blarings at Mrs. Bates in a questionable attempt to compensate for deafness. Here the influence was undeniable, but it could be more subtly detected in Lauren Sowa's depiction of Emma Woodhouse, which was fabulous.
Other Emma films left their mark of the production. When Harriet (Angela Smith, also Mrs. Elton) poses for her portrait, she adopts the awkward Grecian posture of Louise Dylan in the 2009 mini-series, Mr. Woodhouse (Peter DeLaurier) resembles Donald Eccles (my favorite Mr. Woodhouse!) in the 1972 mini-series, and we get glimpses into Emma's fantasy life a la 1996 Kate Beckinsale, but the Hollywood depiction reigns supreme, right down to the kiss shared by Emma and Knightley at the climax. Oh Knightley ...
The entire cast of the play was superb, but Mr. Knightley particularly shown from my perspective. Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that I've never been perfectly satisfied with any of the actors who have played Mr. Knightley in the films, but I thought Harry Smith's was the best portrayal I have seen. He was magnificent, inspiring a new appreciation in myself for his character. The criticisms Mr. Smith's Knightley leveled at Emma seemed more biting than I have usually imagined them to be, and I liked him all the more for it. Fortunate for me, the same actor will be performing at the People's Light and Theater this spring in a different adaptation of Pride & Prejudice than the one I saw. Mr. Smith will be Mr. Wickham, and you better believe I'm not going to miss it for the world.
Emma runs through November 3rd. If you are anywhere near Philadelphia, I urge you to see it.
Despairing that this gem of a play may not ever make to your neck of the woods? Why not buy a copy of the script: http://www.amazon.com/Emma-Michael-Bloom/dp/0573698996/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1382382417&sr=8-1&keywords=emma+by+Michael+Bloom