REVIEW: Gentle comedy manners most at the Vintage — ‘Emma’ rises with 3 of 5 stars

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From left: Victoria Pace (Mrs. Elton), Sara Risner (Emma Woodhouse) and Damon Guerrasio (Mr. Elton). Photo provided courtesy of The Vintage Theatre.

AURORA | The Vintage Theatre is seriously missing out on a valuable revenue stream if it hasn’t inked some sort of quid pro quo with the folks at Merriam-Webster by now. 

The local theater on Dayton Street seems to have made a habit in recent months of staging productions peppered with colloquialisms more familiar to the likes of Ida B. Wells than Beyonce. 

Last fall, the local theater wowed with David Mamet’s “Boston Marriage,” a Victorian-era whiplash of wit that served up a veritable feast of antiquated vocabulary. 

And for three more weeks, Vintage Executive Director Craig Bond is dishing another course of early 19th century phraseology with a tried-and-true telling of Jane Austen’s “Emma.”

Mirroring the glossary of terms printed in the playbill for “Marriage,” “Emma” is prefaced with a sign at the entrance of the Bond-Trimble Theatre that outlines “some words you may not be familiar with.”

Take for example “quadrille,” which refers to a long-forgotten card game popular among 19th century socialites. Then there’s “barouche-landau,” or a four-wheeled carriage. And don’t forget “caro sposa” a snarky term of endearment of Italian origin.

This simple, country reviewer would have added the likes of “approbation,” “inducement” and “coxcomb” to that cheat sheet, too. 

Despite those verbal brambles, this staging of Austen’s beloved yarn is a pleasant, if not slightly protracted, return to the fictional English burg of Highbury.  

For those who preferred Mad Magazine over high school English assignments and happened to miss Gwyneth Paltrow’s take on the meddling protagonist in 1996, this version of the drawing room comedy centers on a mildly self-righteous debutante intent on arranging romances between her friends and acquaintances. Of course, blinded by her own cunning, she repeatedly bungles the arrangements and a cascade of capers ensue.

On a recent Monday night performance, the immaculately costumed cast of 14 actors had the capacity theater rollicking. Like many Austen-inspired productions — “Little Women,” “Pride and Prejudice” — “Emma” felt like a visit from an old friend; a return to older, more novelistic storytelling.

Still, it’s a prickly chore to justify the need for such a production in 2019. Women fawning over men, stodgy father figures and marred marriage arrangements feel just a tad stuffy in the “Me Too” age. Where “Marriage” soared with Bechdel-approved gusto, “Emma” flatly trudges. 

But leave it to Bond and Artistic Director Bernie Cardell, ever the clever manipulators of their minuscule but magic space in north Aurora, to awaken a tired tale. 

Skippered by Sara Risner as the eponymous star, the gaggle of actors expertly dance — sometimes literally — through more than two hours of at once dense and goofy dialogue. Gaston dopplegänger Stephen Krusoe is a forceful Mr. Knightley and Eric Carlson provides an engaging Frank Churchill. Victoria Pace, too, turns in a perfectly insufferable Mrs. Elton, and Bethany Luhrs offers a brilliantly bumbling Harriet. 

But Damon Guerrasio as Mr. Elton turned the most heads last Monday. Aided by Risner’s masterful timing, Guerrasio soars as her schmaltzy and slightly seditious suitor. The floppy felt hat Costume Director Susan Rahmsdorff-Terry tossed on his melon definitively punched up his already fine-tuned comic deliveries. 

All of Rahmsdorff-Terry’s garb, for that matter, cannot go without praise. From the elaborate frocks to Krusoe’s cream-colored cummerbund, all of the clothing cleverly  compliments Austen’s early 1800s personas. 

So while the circuitous saga struggles to emerge from its 19th century chrysalis — there were several sleepy seniors caught dozing in act two — The Vintage manages to tease out a cheery night at the theater. The quick asides of third-person omniscient narration provide welcome moments of mental digestion, and the production team’s always crafty choreography quietly help oxygenate the script. And sure, a thesaurus would have been nice — again — but an audience shouldn’t complain about adding a few more $10 words to the proverbial quiver. Speaking of, anyone up for a quick game of blind man’s bluff?

“Emma”

3 out of 5 stars

Through Aug. 18 at the Vintage Theatre, 1468 Dayton St. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Matinees start at 2:30 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets starts at $16 and may be purchased by calling 303-856-7830 or visiting vintagetheatre.org.