Feeling, thinking, trembling

Tiny Dynamite presents ‘The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged’

4 minute read
How much do you love these books? Jessica Bedford and Charlotte Northeast in ‘The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged.’ (Photo by Daniel Kontz.)
How much do you love these books? Jessica Bedford and Charlotte Northeast in ‘The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged.’ (Photo by Daniel Kontz.)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a small theatre company in possession of a good idea, must be in want of an audience—and that’s precisely why the entire run of Tiny Dynamite’s world premiere, The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged, sold out before the first performance.

Fans of the work of Jane Austen—Austenites, as they’re often called—are a truly special breed. Their fervor for the 19th-century novelist has ensured that her books have remained continuously in print since 1833 (Austen, who published only anonymously during her lifetime, died in 1817), and there have been at least 20 adaptations of Austen’s work for film and TV.

Plenty of purists might think that the only way to revive Austen off the page is to put a bunch of British actors in Regency dress. But many scholars argue that, more than any “traditional” adaptation, Amy Heckerling’s film Clueless is the most faithful to the novelist’s narrative style, though it takes the story’s original threads and places them in 1990s Beverly Hills. With Austen, it isn’t the style that matters, but rather the substance. Which is why Tiny Dynamite’s dive into Austen works so well.

How ardently I admire and love you

I wasn’t originally supposed to review The Complete Works. Rather, I was going to see it as the plus-one of Alaina Johns, our fearless editor. But as so often happens in Austen’s novels, fate intervened and left me in the critic’s seat. I actually I know three of the play’s four creators—Kathryn (“KC”) MacMillan (the play’s director), Charlotte Northeast, and Meghan Winch—through a book club we were all once in. But I strode into the performance with my best Elinor Dashwood gameface, determined to be practical and objective…and then I indulged in a sensible Marianne Dashwood-style whisper to my own plus-one: “I really hope I like this.”

I needn’t have feared. Almost from the start, The Complete Works is a delight. Performed by three actors—Northeast; her co-creator, Jessica Bedford; and Trevor William Fayle—the production kicks off with a moment of panic as Charlotte and Jessica (all of the characters share the first names of the actors who play them) realize their third (and only male) performer has left them for another production, just before their inaugural performance of The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged (it’s very meta). Enter Trevor, an actor very much in need of a job but very unfamiliar with Austen’s works.

Know your own happiness

It’s up to Charlotte and Jessica to introduce Trevor to Austen, so they lead him, and the audience, through a survey of all of Austen’s work. It’s refreshing to see Austen—whom I’ve been reading since I was in middle school and have reread many times—seen through the eyes of a novice, who first questions but then wholly embraces her language, her humor, and her practicality. The audience is frequently one step ahead of Trevor, but not in a bad way. In fact, it makes it all the more delightful to know what’s coming and to watch Trevor (and the few other non-Austenites in the audience) take it in for the first time.

Don’t believe the purists: Jessica Bedford in ‘The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged.’ (Photo by Daniel Kontz.)
Don’t believe the purists: Jessica Bedford in ‘The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged.’ (Photo by Daniel Kontz.)

All three performers alternate between characters at breakneck speed, assisted by dubiously magical hats, a shocking variety of English accents, and of course, Austen’s own words. As the action goes on, we learn that Trevor has tried to bring himself up to speed on both the novels and the biography of the late, great writer, and his fresh perspective and increasingly strong opinions keep things from going too far down the path of the cult of Austen.

The Complete Works may borrow its title and general format from The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), but it is wholly, and charmingly, original. I quite honestly couldn’t stop smiling.

Indulge your imagination in every possible flight

Although it’s located in Old City Philadelphia and not the English countryside, the historic Hill-Physick House provides the perfect location for The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged, having been built just three years after Austen’s birth. The characters of the play are very clear that they live in modern times, but the setting certainly helps set the mood, looking for all that it does to be exactly the type of home where one of Austen’s balls might have taken place.

The show is part of Tiny Dynamite’s A Play, A Pie, and a Pint series. Theatergoers are treated to a slice of pizza and a beer, glass of wine, or bottle of water… slightly anachronistic fare given the setting and the content, but as I drank my beer and ate my pizza in Hill-Physick’s beautiful garden, taking in a lovely late-spring evening and awaiting the show’s start, I couldn’t imagine anywhere else I would have rather passed an evening.

What, When, Where

The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged. By Jessica Bedford, Kathryn MacMillan, Charlotte Northeast, and Meghan Winch. Sold-out run continues through June 16, 2019, at the Hill-Physick House, 321 S. 4th St., Philadelphia. (215) 399-0088 or tinydynamite.org. Follow Tiny Dynamite on Facebook to learn about last-minute ticket availability and the company’s plans to remount the play in November.

The Hill-Physick House venue can be accessed only via a short staircase.

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