There were two very short periods in my life when I read for pleasure. 8th grade, when a very smart teacher introduced me to the likes of fantasy/sci-fi authors Anne McCaffrey, Piers Anthony, Douglas Adams and Ray Bradbury, and then again my freshman year of college when I discovered and then ended up reading just about every single novel and short story by Jane Austen, Henry James and the Bronte Sisters. Through these authors, I discovered a wit and way with words that inspired me to push through the challenges of dyslexia and the short attention span that accompanies an active imagination and really enjoy reading. All that to say, there’s a special place in my heart for Miss Austen’s literature and I was torn when I heard that San Jose Stage was set to replace the very much-anticipated Three Penny Opera (one of my favorites) with a World Premiere of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. This novel is a bit more heady and a bit less “humorous” and I wasn’t sure it if would translate to the stage as well as say Pride and Prejudice or Emma. Persuasion is a bit more serious and has a more subdued plot than Austen’s other works and therefore a more challenging source material with which to work.
Any time you adapt a work you have to make sacrifices. Some of the best parts of any Jane Austen novel are the descriptions of things and places, not necessarily the dialogue. Translating the nuances, rhythm, precise structure, word choice and wit of the language, (which is very linear) to a stage where you’re taking in all the visuals simultaneously is not an easy thing to do. Just because the “words” are written for you doesn’t mean you are choosing the right ones for the stage and that you don’t have to work overtime capturing the details of Austen’s descriptors without actually using THAT language. I think the adaptor and cast did a very respectable job of a difficult task in this case. One may always like the book in book form best, but this play captures the essence of Austen genuinely.
There’s no getting around it, these are now, stock characters. They are tried and tested characters, but at the end of the day they are predictable and standard. But, that’s not a bad thing. There’s a reason Miss Austen’s work is a classic. There’s a reason we keep adapting her stories to stage and screen. And, there are reasons similar series like Downton Abbey, have us flocking to the TV weekly. There’s something that a significant portion of the population like in these types of stories and in these people and the actors do bring them to life in an amusing and endearing way.
Many of the actors in Persuasion play two characters which normally I really don’t like. This cast did a well above average job of creating characters that were different enough from each other and names cleverly used in the dialogue helped to keep who was being addressed straight, but pay keen attention to the very top of the show to get your initial run down of characters so you don’t get too lost. The period language is preserved and so come to the show expecting at least at first to “find your ear’s groove.” In some places the pace is slow, but when it moves, it does move fast and if you aren’t familiar with the players you may feel like you’re “trying too hard” as an audience member and not just able to enjoy it.
Some of the staging devices have been used many times before in similar page to stage productions. If you haven’t seen a number of shows where minimal furniture is used to represent many things and locations, you’ll likely be charmed by the creative collaborative approach where all the actors are involved with transitioning scenes as a brief narration indicates the who, what and where particulars of the scene to follow. There were also a few gimmicks I had never seen before which were a lot of fun to watch unfold.
The only real issue I had with this production was the lighting. In order to portray location adequately the back wall of the beautiful set had projections displayed on it. With up to 10 people on the relatively small stage at any one time and audience on three sides, some of the action is going to need to take place on the upper ½ of the stage and the staging is very pretty and well done. However, that upper part of the stage is right in the path of the projector resulting in a number of times that it was hard to see facial expressions, not be distracted by the projection ON the actor and in some cases even SEE the actors clearly in the darker areas of the stage kept dim to bring out the projections. The lesser of two evils certainly to have this visual rather than lack of variety in staging, too many sight line obstructions or be confused on location, but still a point of irritation that took me out of the moment too often.
Overall this was a pleasing night of theater and it pretty much delivers what you’d expect. While nothing seems revolutionary, cutting edge or significantly “new” about this production, it is carefully crafted, well performed and certainly entertaining. If you like this genre, I feel pretty certain you’ll like this production. If you’re new to this type of work, you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised by the adept skills of the performers. 4 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for an admirable adaptation and a night of period romantic drama and light comedy. Jane Austen’s Persuasion plays through April 28th at the San Jose Stage in… downtown San Jose.
Yeah, the lighting design was abysmal.