Credit: Suzanne Plunkett

Phil Timberlake’s new dramatization of Jane Austen’s 1816 masterpiece, written especially for Lifeline Theatre, is neither a word-for-word transposition from page to stage nor a modernization (a la Amy Heckerling’s 1995 movie Clueless). Instead, Timberlake and director Elise Kauzlaric (both members of Lifeline’s ensemble) find a middle ground that both playfully theatricalizes Austen’s tale of “handsome, clever, and rich” Emma Woodhouse and her misguided but comic attempts to find a suitable husband for her likable but considerably less well-connected friend Harriet Smith, yet also remains firmly rooted in the original novel’s setting (the fictional English village of Highbury and surrounding estates) and tone (witty, understated, highly literate).

The most interesting element of this production is the decision to have all of the parts in Austen’s character-rich novel played by only five actors. Throughout the play performers must transform themselves from one character to another in full view of the audience, often with just a quick change in posture or tone of voice. (Only Emma Sipora Tyler, delightful as the title character, plays a single role throughout.) This has been done before (see Charles Ludlam’s two-person multiple- character 1984 tour de farce The Mystery of Irma Vep). But Timberlake and Kauzlaric do Ludlam one better by asking actors to share roles; Mr. Weston, for example, is played over the course of the evening by four different actors. This choice adds a childlike playfulness to the production that in no way takes away from an adaptation that remains true to the spirit, if not the letter, of the original.   v