First, a retraction: A story about the Guthrie Theater's long-delayed "Emma" said it was "waltzing onto the stage" but it's really "electric sliding onto the stage."
Like all of Jane Austen's work, Kate Hamill's adaptation is nominally set in the early 19th century. But in a fizzy staging by Meredith McDonough, it's more like the present, with 10 characters who go back and forth between sipping tea 200 years ago and boogieing to today's Lizzo, Stevie Wonder and Boyz II Men. One wears a mask to avoid COVID. Another dons Crocs. Dances include the running man, the Nae Nae and — accompanying the Supremes' "Baby Love" — a new one that's part gavotte, part frug.
It's the work of movement director Emily Michaels King, a star of this production even if she's not on stage. McDonough incorporates as much dance as possible — emboldened, no doubt, by the fact that Austen characters threw balls for any occasion (engagements, the harvest, a sunset). Dance is central to some scenes, a backdrop of others and a linking device for yet others and it is always inventively and deliriously fun, especially when it involves Ryan Colbert, who plays two unsuitable suitors (Robert Martin and Frank Churchill) but who can — as Miss Austen used to say — throw down.
Hamill's world premiere adheres to Austen's story about a woman who thinks she knows what's best for everyone despite considerable evidence to the contrary. But, truth be told, it does not feel much like Austen. Whereas the writer's gift was for insinuation and understatement, this "Emma" is brash (occasionally, performers mistake volume for wit) and eager to please. But I think we can agree audiences are ready for pleasure now.
Hamill's Emma takes us into her confidence, addressing us and even upbraiding us for not correcting her when she erred. It's a clever idea that makes us complicit in Emma's errant matchmaking. And, after a first act that bursts with pratfalls and right-up-to-the-edge-of-mugging performances, those playful speeches give way to something deeper.
On opening night, just hours after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, one line about Emma — "She has scarcely any rights at all" — drew an audience gasp. Oh, there's still silliness in the second act but it comes with a side of tart realism.
That's when questions that hang over the play — "Don't you have anything better to do with your time?," "What will you do with all of that education?" — hit home. Austen positioned Emma's meddling as the product of a keen mind marooned in a society with little use for it but Hamill goes one better, showing how wealth and class feed Emma's dilettantism.
A sharp speech, calmly delivered by Brenda Withers as Emma's former governess, underscores the dangers of privilege and leisure.
That may sound didactic but "Emma" goes down smoothly, partly because Amelia Pedlow delicately balances her character's wit and torment, and partly because it's so purpose-built to bring joy. At one point, Sun Mee Chomet's daffy Miss Bates shouts, "We are all prepared to be charmed!" You should prepare to be, too.
Who: By Kate Hamill, adapted from Jane Austen. Directed by Meredith McDonough.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 1 and 7:30 p.m. Sat., 1 and 7 p.m. Sun.
Where: 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
Tickets: $26-$80, 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org
Protocol: Masks required.