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The early 19th-century world of Jane Austen, as we learn in Tiny Dynamite’s new staging of its hit 2019 show, The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged, was “a time when patriarchy ruled deeply and ruthlessly,” and a time when ordinary citizens lived with the constant anxieties of war.
Good thing we can’t relate to either of those situations today.
The script by Jessica Bedford, Kathryn MacMillan, Charlotte Northeast, and Meghan Winch asks whether Austen is so wildly, enduringly popular because she is modern, or because she is timeless. The question is worth exploring for a small theater company—in her curtain speech at the June 15 performance, MacMillan (who also directs) hoped that “so many new patrons” who found their way to Tiny Dynamite thanks to its Austen show will return for other productions.
In a brief audience poll, only one ticket-buyer admitted to not being an “Austen superfan.” Thanks to the fleet, engaging ensemble performances of Brittany Onukwugha, Charlotte Northeast, and Trevor William Fayle, anyone could enjoy this show, but Janeites (whose fandom far predates Trekkies, as the show points out) will get the most out of it, savoring each original line and plot point.
It's more fun if I don’t spoil the ways that this 85-minute show does, indeed, traverse the complete works, including Austen’s juvenilia and unfinished or unpublished manuscripts. Depending on your preferred nerddom, some stretches may fall flat. But with MacMillan’s tight direction and the cast’s funny physical flourishes, the action flies between meta hijinks and earnest emotion.
Costumes by Janus Stefanowicz work overtime, from a perfectly characterized rotation of hats for Pride and Prejudice to expertly layered quick-change skirts, shawls, and jackets.
“People want to wear these clothes,” the script muses of the “great tits” and breathing room begotten by the looser corsets and empire waists of the Regency era—much better than those strapped-in Victorians. And as Fayle luxuriously flings out his coattails before perching onstage, the sartorial bliss rings true.
Set designer Sara Outing offers a single red chaise lounge and four panels which, set diagonally in the small black box of the Drake’s Louis Bluver Theatre, create an inviting pastel depth of crown-molded corridors. Lights by Alyssandra Docherty and sound and music by Daniel Ison add pinpoint drama and fun.
Onukwugha brings an easy, impish warmth to her performance, from the naïve poise of Emma to the lovably inane Harriet Smith. Northeast is equal parts wry and sentimental. Fayle does yeoman’s work as nearly every Austen hero, and is delightful as he flashes between a tragically nerdy Edward Ferrars and the deep, nasally purr of Alan Rickman, in a nod to the actor’s turn as Colonel Brandon in the beloved 1995 Sense and Sensibility movie.
Half agony, half hope
Which Austen novel is the greatest of all? This show gives equal airtime to the lesser-known works that fans usually rank at the bottom of the canon (honestly, who’s lusting over Henry Tilney or Edmund Bertram?). But I agree with Northeast’s character, who loves the “aching” later-life romance of Persuasion, completed just six months before Austen’s death at 41. I can’t hear Captain Wentworth’s heartfelt letter (“I am half agony, half hope”) without sniffling.
MacMillan noted that the show was on its way to the 2020 Edinburgh Fringe, but the pandemic scrapped the trip. They’ve been re-invited to mount it there in August 2023. For now, Philly fans can catch the play live through June 26, and then a streaming version will be available June 29 through July 17. It’s a worthwhile ticket for Philly Janeites.
What, When, Where
The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged. By Jessica Bedford, Kathryn MacMillan, Charlotte Northeast, and Meghan Winch; directed by Kathryn MacMillan. $25-$35. Onstage through June 26, 2022 at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. Available to stream from June 29 through July 17, 2022. (215) 399-0088 or tinydynamite.org.
Proof of Covid-19 vaccination is required, and masks must be worn inside the theater.
The Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake is a wheelchair-accessible venue with gender-neutral restrooms.
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