by Jane Austen
Adapted for stage by Tim Luscombe
Stolen Shakespeare Guild
Directed by Jason and Lauren Morgan
Choreographer – Stefanie Glenn
Set Design – Jason and Lauren Morgan
Lighting Design – Bryan Douglas
Sound Design – Lauren Morgan
Costume Design – Lauren Morgan
Props Design – Jennifer Stewart
Props Artisan – Jean Jeske
Stage Manager – Jennifer Stewart
Marisa Duran – CATHERINE MORLAND
Victoria Steffins – ISABELLA THORPE
James Kazen – HENRY TILNEY
D. Aidan Wright – JOHN THORPE
Cynthia Mathews – MRS. ALLEN
Caroline Ellis – ELEANOR TILNEY
Blake Hametner – JAMES MORLAND/BRIDEGROOM/ENSEMBLE
Bobby Rochelle – CAPTAIN FREDERICK TILNEY/MAID
Esther Selgrath – MRS. MORELAND/ENSEMBLE/MAID
Mark Fickert – GENERAL TILNEY
Reviewed Performance: 7/13/2019
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Jane Austen is an acquired taste. There are those who love her stories and others who don't. I fall in the middle. The stories don't connect with me much, but I appreciate what she aimed at as a writer. In fact, it’s a little hard to relate to early 1800s English life today, and yet the likes of Downton Abbey and many TV and movie treatments reveal a wealth of interest for the likes of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and all-things Austen. Austen's impact on British and American literature is obvious.
Northanger Abbey is not the most popular of Austen novels, though it was the first published, and yet there was a movie and now this stage adaptation by British playwright and director, Tim Luscombe. He also turned other Austen novels into stage plays. Stolen Shakespeare Guild, which has pivoted over the years to a more general season from its Shakespeare beginnings has turned this play into a production that played to sold-out shows the first weekend.
Jason and Lauren Morgan seem to feel comfortable working in this early-history British style. The costuming alone fits squarely into Lauren's ideas about dressing characters in lush period finery with a simple panache. Characters embody her costumes comfortably and appear to get inspiration from the clothes. While SSG sets are usually simple, the Morgans as Set Designers, effectively provide an emotional feel to the varying locales portrayed here by little platforms framed by arches, and along with Bryan Douglas' lighting designs and Lauren's sound effects and music, the audience fits into the time and style of the play and believe the characters are living there. Add to this Jennifer Stewart's Prop Designs and Artisan Jean Jeske's created props, and we easily slip back into an early-1800s England. Catherine Morland, played by Marisa Duran, is a young girl with a big imagination. In fact, she loves to read, especially Gothic novels. That was the horror flic of the day and a style Jane Austen hated. Morland goes to Bath England at the invite of Mrs. Allen, wealthy elders of the community. Catherine is then assumed to be wealthy, which makes her a target of young men. She ends up with two suitors, one she likes and the other she doesn't. And so the story begins about how to navigate this conundrum. Duran looks and seems the part. Small and cute and personable, she easily fits as a darling of society, though not by Catherine's intention. Duran plays this role for all it's worth, both the sweet and cuddly parts and the Gothic imaginer of dark and scary things. But her vulnerability comes through as Duran winds her way through the real question: will it be John Thorpe or Henry Tilney?
The Tilneys from Northanger Abbey are there too, truly wealthy folks and high-society. Henry Tilney becomes a suitor for Catherine, while his sister, Eleanor becomes a friend. General Tilney, owner of the Abbey, imposes his will, while Captain Frederick Tilney competes with Catherine's own brother for a best friend, Isabella Thorpe. And it's John Thorpe, her brother, who competes with Henry for Catherine. See the Peyton Place nature of this story?
Isabella, played by Victoria Steffins, is a tall, beautiful ingénue of Bath. She takes Catherine into Bath society and becomes her friend, sharing Catherine's love of Gothic literature. Tall and statuesque, Steffins played the part of heiress with an assuredness and British snobbishness to counter the innocence of Catherine. Isabella's story involves her own love triangle with Catherine's brother and the dashing Captain Thorpe which allows her to show both indecision and a yearning to opt for wealth instead of a real love for a lower status.
Eleanor Tilney, by Caroline Ellis, and James Kazen's Henry Tilney are close siblings, raised among the elite. Their Abbey is large in their lives. But they also share a love of reading with Caroline and love to tout the marvels of the ghost tales about the Abbey. Ellis shows a strong sense of entitlement, knowing she's cared for. But there's also a look, a mystery about her that raises the possibility of something foreboding. Kazen, as Henry, seems the most regular of all characters, someone who knows his position but takes it in stride. Kazen makes Henry likable, which makes him the most obvious choice for Catherine, though he gets frequently spurned through John Thorpe's overbearing pursuit of Catherine.
That overbearing John Thorpe was created by D. Aidan Wright. John is both a suitor for Catherine, but also a bit of a lout and a comic relief. I got a bit of Basil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers), the avowed high-society class racist showing the worst of high society. He's also someone willing to lie and kidnap to get what he wants. Wright had to do much of this role in over-the-top outlandish style, exactly what actors are taught not to do. But the style called for it. The only real quibble I had was with Wright's accent. It's very dicey trying to mimic British accents, especially for Texan ears. Much of Wright's performance was hard to understand because of the heavy accent. In London, every word would be understood. That said, he played the lout and comic foil with full gusto.
General Tilney, owner of Northanger Abbey, was the major hurdle to Catherine and Henry. Mark Fickert was able to create this block while showing his simultaneous charm and warmth and then cold rejection. Fickert didn't say a lot, but just walked around the set frequently, akin to meandering around the town, but was intimidating at that. He held himself proudly and spoke with authority, except in a couple of instances when his daughter prevailed on him to bend.
Cynthia Mathews as Mrs. Allen provided a number of comic interludes to spice up Catherine's life. It's clear that dress is very important in her world, although she wears the same dress throughout the play, as do all the other characters, perhaps a nod to Austen's ridicule of the styles of the day. The key to success and popularity amongst Bath high-society is the dress one wears. And this constant refrain and comment on the subject gave Mathews numerous opportunities to show her comedic timing without so much as a joke.
Blake Hemetner as James Morland, Catherine's brother, created a likeable character who misjudges his choice for wife, Isabella, Catherine's best friend. There is a message here from Austen that people of lower status are more real and likable than higher class snobs. The foil to James is Captain Frederick Tilney, played by Bobby Rochelle. Sweeping in after James is engaged to Isabella, Tilney attracts her attention and changes her mind. For both Isabella and Tilney, it's clear that status is more important than fidelity and honesty. Rochelle provides a character who's more like a playboy than someone looking for love.
The cast is completed by Esther Selgrath as Mrs. Moreland, Catherine's mother. While there's a status difference between Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Moreland, they both come off as good people, wanting the best for Catherine, while still understanding and living with the way things are. Selgrath portrays a true loving mother.
Northanger Abbey is a parody of the literary styles and, as with all Jane Austen work, a rebuke and commentary on how people lived in the early 1800s. By enacting a story using the same styles she ridiculed, she created a comic parody that was ahead of her time. This came out in the SSG production, with over-the-top and outlandish performances, especially the trip to the Abbey. There's a large amount of analysis of this novel and Austen's work for literary students. But as a piece of entertainment in the 21st Century, it's pretty light. But light is a blessing these days. For an evening or afternoon of light comedy and a look back at a long-past innocent time, visit Northanger Abbey with Stolen Shakespeare Guild.
Stolen Shakespeare Guild
Fort Worth Community Arts Center in the Sanders Theatre
1300 Gendy St., Fort Worth, TX 76107
Runs through July 28th
Runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm.
Pricing runs $20 – 25 with discounts for Seniors, Students and Military and for Matinees. Check the website for the pricing.
For information and tickets, go to www.stolenshakespeareguild.org or call Theatre Mania at 866-811-4111.