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Edited and Published by Robert W. McDowell

November 24, 2022 Issue
PART 2 (November 19, 2022)

A FREE Weekly E-mail Newsletter Covering Theater, Dance, Music, and Film in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill/Carrboro Area of North Carolina Since April 2001.


Swipe Right on Kate Hamill's Emma at PlayMakers
Rep for a Delightful, Music-Filled Comedy!

PlayMakers Repertory Company will stage Kate Hamill's Emma, based on the 1815 novel by Jane Austen and directed
by Meredith McDonough, on Nov. 16-Dec. 4 in the Paul Green Theatre at UNC-Chapel Hill (photo by HuthPhoto)

Once you see the playbill cover design for PlayMakers Repertory Company's production of Emma, you'll know immediately that it's not going to be any Emma that you've experienced before. The design features Regency-style silhouettes of the novel's characters, displayed on a series of smartphone screens, like a dating app. Another clue that this is going to be a fun evening is the Spotify playlist on the show's webpage -- something to play during your carriage ride to the Paul Green Theatre in UNC-Chapel Hill's Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art!

You don't have to be super-familiar with Jane Austen's three-volume 1815 novel Emma to enjoy this play. But it does help to have recently watched one or two of the many films. This critic recommends the 2020 film version of Emma, starring Anna Taylor-Joy, available on Amazon Prime Video. And the 1995 film Clueless (the PlayMakers show contains some Easter eggs from this movie) is available on Netflix through the end of November.

The PlayMakers Rep version of Emma was originally commissioned and produced by Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Joseph Haj, director. (Before moving to The Guthrie in 2015, artistic director Joseph Haj was the producing artistic director at PlayMakers.)

Playwright and actor Kate Hamill has adapted other Jane Austen novels for the stage: Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, which was named as one of the Top 10 Plays of 2014 by Ben Brantley in The New York Times. Emma debuted (after a two-year pause during the vexing COVID epidemic) on June 18, 2022 at The Guthrie, with Hamill and director Meredith McDonough working together. (Both Hamill and McDonough were in the audience on Friday, Nov. 18th, for PlayMakers Rep's opening-night performance, which added to the excitement.)

Jamie Ann Romero and Eric Bryant star as Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley in Kate Hamill's Emma (photo by HuthPhoto)

Scenic and costume designer Lex Liang was also part of the original production team from The Guthrie. It's extremely unusual for a designer to tackle both the scenery and the costumes. So often in productions, it's glaringly obvious that the costumer and the scenic designer have barely talked, and most likely just gone off and done their own thing.

Liang's neoclassical sense, combined with a modern sensibility, is a joy to behold. Favorite scenic moments are the Bates' house, filled with cats and cat portraits, and the Strawberry Picking, in which Liang and director Meredith McDonough have chosen to include enormous strawberry crates for outdoor seating.

Choreographer Emily Michaels King created the original dances for The Guthrie, and now for PlayMakers. As with Liang, King combines the old and the new. The dances and the music in the show (especially the ball) are the reason that I'm recommending that mothers bring their daughters (recommend age 8+).

Jamie Ann Romero plays the handsome, clever, and rich Emma Woodhouse as an appealing, meddling, trying-to-be-helpful heroine. Reminiscent of a young Nancy Pelosi, she is always three chess moves ahead of everyone; and Liang's chessboard floor implies the gamesmanship. It's no surprise that Romero was part of the Broadway First National Tour of The Play That Goes Wrong -- a show that also demands stamina and comedy chops. This Emma breaks the fourth wall to chat with the audience and bring us all along on her journey.

The cast for PlayMakers Repertory Company's production of Kate Hamill's Emma includes (from left) Amber Nicole Guest as Miss
Bates, Sanjana Taskar as Jane Fairfax, Jamar Jones as Frank Churchill, and Hayley Cartee as Mrs. Elton (photo by HuthPhoto)

Eric Bryant plays the role of Mr. George Knightley, the handsome next-door neighbor and friend of the family. The banter between Emma and Mr. K establishes their childhood friendship and ease with each other. There's a point in the story where Emma is cruel to Miss Bates, which leads to Mr. K chiding Emma, forming a rift in their long relationship. In this script, the event happens in Act Two at the ball, at a moment Emma is particularly stressed. This left little time for Emma and Mr. K's displeasure with each other to fester before they make up. But they do make up, ending with a kiss and great applause.

Kimberly Chatterjee is making her PlayMakers debut in the role of Harriet Smith. No stranger to Austen or Hamill's work, Chatterjee appeared in Hamill's Pride and Prejudice at Primary Stages in New York City. We first meet Harriet when she is adopted by Emma to be her protégé. Sweaty and nervous, with a lock of hair constantly falling into her face, she behaves like an untrained puppy, happy to be rewarded with a biscuit when she behaves properly. By Act Two, Harriet has moved "forward, onward, upward" -- getting her act together and refusing to eat biscuits: "I SHALL make up my own mind and choose WHOMEVER I WILL, for whatever REASON I LIKE!" (These are the playwright's CAPITAL LETTERS.)

Jamie Ann Romero (left) and Kimberly Chatterjee star as Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith in Emma (photo by HuthPhoto)

Jeffrey Blair Cornell, Teaching Professor/Associate Chair in UNC's Department of Dramatic Art, marks his 29th season at PlayMakers. A far cry from his role as Brutus in PlayMakers Rep's production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Cornell plays the roles of Mr. Weston and Mr. Woodhouse, Emma's dad. Daddy Woodhouse's obsession with gruel and drafts leads to great comic moments, especially in the descriptions of the family gruel being "perfectly lukewarm" and needing to be eaten before it "forms a skin." More opportunities to show the affection between daughter and father would have added a layer of warmth to the play.

Amber Nicole Guest plays another Random Lady, as well as a Servant. But her Miss Bates is where she really shines. The fact that Guest is an accomplished singer brings a musicality to Miss Bates' loquaciousness, which makes a character who is supposed to be a bloody bore, surprisingly interesting and somehow more endearing. Triangle audiences may have caught Guest's performance in Theatre Raleigh's production of City of Angels back in August.

Kate Hamill's Emma stars Rasool Jahan and Jeffrey Blair Cornell star as Mrs. Weston and Mr. Weston (photo by HuthPhoto)

Durham's own Rasool Jahan plays Mrs. Anne Weston, formerly Miss Anne Taylor, the devoted governess to the Woodhouse family. Kate Hamill's script brings in Mrs. W toward the end of the play for some closing Girl-Power remarks: "I see someone becoming wiser by the moment. I taught you all I knew, Emma, because I thought you were capable of -- more. That you might find a way to use that great brain -- to do better than the world expected you to. So -- become capable of more."

Jamar Jones plays Robert Martin, the young farmer with his eye on Harriet, and Frank Churchill, the "popinjay" who is secretly involved with Jane Fairfax. This script gives us very little Robert Martin time, which we miss, because the Harriet/Robert romance is such a wonderful part of the story. We focus on Frank Churchill, even at the only rural event, the Strawberry Picking. The best scenes that place between Frank and Emma are those in which sparkling chemistry is supposed to happen, but to comic effect, does not.

Kimberly Chatterjee (left) and Jamie Ann Romero star as Harriet Smith and Emma Woodhouse in Emma (photo by HuthPhoto)

Sanjana Taskar plays the elegant and beautiful Jane Fairfax, whose perceived perfection is annoying to Emma: "Not a hair out of place, not a toe out of line, not a drop of blood in her veins!" The momentary encounters between Jane and Frank Churchill are so wonderfully cryptic that one might wonder if a murder mystery might have been incorporated into the plot.

My hope was that there would be some nontraditional casting in the show, especially for the role of Mrs. Bates, Miss Bates' ancient mother. And while Adam Valentine does a bang-up job as Mr. Elton (the eccentric poetry-spouting young rector who has an enormous crush on Emma), you can be sure that his donning of the bonnet of Mrs. Bates adds to the playfulness of the production.

Jamie Ann Romero and Eric Bryant star as Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley in Kate Hamill's Emma (photo by HuthPhoto)

Durham native Hyley Cartee is in her second year of UNC's Professional Actor Training Program. Cartee claims in her bio that she "almost made her PlayMakers debut when her mother went into labor in the Paul Green Theatre." Cartee plays multiple roles in the play as Mrs. Elton/Servant/Random Lady. As much as I adore the term, "Random Lady," Cartee's Mrs. Elton is by far the more fun to watch, and hear, because of her incredibly silly laugh.

Costumer Lex Liang has added some ridiculously bright neon gloves to Mrs. Elton's attire. The gloves and the laughing seem like an attempt to engage the children in the audience by adding some clowns to the show. But seeing them together in a series of random appearance makes us all feel good that Mr. Elton has found the only woman in Britain who adores his poetry.

Kimberly Chatterjee (left) and Amber Nicole Guest star as Harriet Smith and Miss Bates in Kate Hamill's Emma (photo by HuthPhoto)

Veteran director Meredith McDonough leans into Emma's situation -- an educated and strong young woman who wants to be helpful, learns to maneuver in an era when social mores call for females to be passive, pretty, and to stay out of the way. In an interview with Jennifer Abella on the Jane Austen Summer Program website, McDonough describes her play as "This is what happens when you have a sheep dog that's given no sheep to herd. They will chew the furniture."

If you're searching for a compatible match among a huge selection of entertainment options in the Triangle, this critic urges you to swipe right on this delightful, music-filled comedy!

Adam Valentine stars as Mr. Elton in PlayMakers Repertory Company's production of Kate Hamill's Emma (photo by HuthPhoto)

Kate Hamill's EMMA (In Person at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20, 22, 23, 26, and 27 and Nov. 29-Dec. 4, except 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20th, and Dec. 1-4 Video-on-Demand Performances), based on the 1815 novel by Jane Austen, directed by Meredith McDonough, and starring (in alphabetical order) Eric Bryant as Mr. George Knightley, Hyley Cartee as Mrs. Elton, Kimberly Chatterjee as Harriet Smith, Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Mr. Weston/Mr. Henry Woodhouse, Amber Nicole Guest as Miss Bates, Rasool Jahan as Mrs. Weston, Jamar Jones as Robert Martin/Frank Churchill, Jamie Ann Romero as Emma Woodhouse, Sanjana Taskar as Jane Fairfax, and Adam Valentine as Mr. Elton/Mrs. Bates (PlayMakers Repertory Company in the Paul Green Theatre in UNC-Chapel Hill's Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art). PLAYBILL: (desktop version) and (mobile version). TRAILER: PRC VIDEOS: 2022-23 SEASON: UNC NEWS RELEASE: THE PRESENTER:,,,,, and PRC BLOG: THE VENUE: DIRECTIONS/PARKING: CAROLINA TOGETHER COVID-19 PAGE: THE PLAY: and THE PLAYWRIGHT:,,,, and NOTE 1: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe and sign-language interpret the show's 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 22nd, performance. NOTE 2: The 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 27th, show will be an open-captioned performance, with a "universal-access" live-caption unit, communicating dialog, stage directions, and sound effects. NOTE 3: There will also be a post-show discussion with cast and crew, following the 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 27th, performance. NOTE 4: The 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 29th, show will be a socially distanced performance. SPECIAL ACTIVITY: For hardcore Jane Austen fans, the Jane Austen Summer Program is hosting A Day Out with Emma, starting at 12 noon Saturday, Dec. 3rd. The Day Out will feature lectures by Austen scholars, a tea break with scones and other goodies, crafts (Make Your Own Fascinators!), Austen-centric shopping, a special preshow reception, and reserved group seating for the 7:30 p.m. performance of the play. To buy tickets, click here. TICKETS: $20 and up ($10 students and youth), plus taxes and fees. Click here to buy tickets to in-person performances and here to buy a ticket a video-on-demand performance, viewable from 12 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 1st, until 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4th. INFORMATION: 919-962-7529 or PLEASE DONATE TO: PlayMakers Repertory Company.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Nancy Gardner Rich is a local director/choreographer, with a love for the performing arts and a passion for supporting local artistic work. Nancy and her husband, Rod, own and operate Monkeybravo, a video production company. Nancy is one of the founders of Actors Comedy Lab and participates in local theater as a hired gun, a volunteer and, on very rare occasions, an actor. Nancy recently wrote a series of monologues called The PRINCESS Talks, performed at the 2017 Women's Theatre Festival.


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