Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 2 2020 02:00PM

Actor/playwright Kate Hamill has cornered the market on energetic, quirky theatrical adaptations of classic literature – Vanity Fair, Little Women, The Scarlet Letter – but she got her start with Jane Austen. (Even though Austen didn't write Dracula.)


Over the past four years, Hamill's madcap versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice had off-Broadway runs in New York and such vigorous afterlives in regional theaters that they helped turn Hamill into one of America’s twenty most-produced playwrights for three years running. (She’s also written a Mansfield Park that, as far as I know, has only been produced once, near Chicago.)


Now comes welcome news for Janeites: Hamill has written a new adaptation of Emma, which will premiere in April at Minneapolis’ famed Guthrie Theater, just eight weeks after the U.S. opening of a new feature-film version of the novel. (It’s Emma year!) Another production is scheduled for April-May 2021at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.


No word yet on whether Hamill’s Emma – not to mention her Mansfield Park -- will have a New York production, but my fingers are crossed.


By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 6 2020 02:00PM

Making a mistake in print, and being forced to acknowledge it publicly in the corrections column: It’s every journalist’s nightmare. And it’s happened to all of us. In my time, I have misspelled names, mixed up business deals, miscalculated sums, misstated a legal ruling. . . (Ugh. Do I have to keep going? Just thinking about it puts knots in my stomach.)


So I empathized late last month when the New York Times was forced to acknowledge a truly embarrassing mistake: “In an earlier version of this article, . . . the author of ‘Dracula’ was incorrect. He is Bram Stoker, not Jane Austen.”


OK, it’s also pretty funny.


The article in question was one of the Times’ much-loved Vows features, which describe the love story and wedding of a newly married couple. This time, the happy pair were actress/playwright Kate Hamill, whose madcap theatrical adaptations of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice have been widely produced; and actor Jason O’Connell, who played Mr. Darcy to her Elizabeth Bennet in the New York premiere of her P&P.


Hamill’s newest project is an adaptation of Dracula, but given her success with Austen, it’s perhaps not surprising that a reporter, working quickly, might have experienced a momentary brain freeze. (In the olden days, before the Times shrank its copyediting staff, this kind of thing would likely have been caught before it made it into print, or – as in this case – onto the web. But we NYT aficionados have been complaining about the detectable increase in sloppiness for awhile now.)


Still, the error does encourage us to reflect upon the ways in which Dracula already resembles an Austen novel. It begins with a naïve visitor journeying to a house that holds unsuspected horrors: here, Jonathan Harker; in Austen, Catherine Morland. It continues with an unpleasant extended house party involving encounters with blood-sucking harpies and a strangely aloof host: Jonathan Harker at the Count’s castle, or Elizabeth Bennet at Netherfield.


Later on there’s a young woman ruined by a predatory male (Lucy Westenra, the Elizas in Sense and Sensibility); a virtuous woman torn between a safe, dull suitor and a dangerous, exciting demon lover (Mina Harker, Fanny Price); a desperate struggle over real estate (the Count’s acquisition of safehouses in England, the Dashwoods’ search for a new place to live) and a hapless patient with an attachment to his doctor and odd tastes in food (Renfield and his bugs, Mr. Woodhouse and his gruel).


I won’t get into how the climactic stake through the heart can be equated to the marriages that end Austen’s novels. We’ll leave that one to Dr. Freud’s Vows column.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 6 2019 01:00PM

The family-friendly Christmas show is a staple of local arts companies. Every December, the main stage in the regional theater near me is given over to performances of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, perfectly calculated to sell a boatload of tickets to nostalgic grandparents and fresh-faced young ‘uns. At about the same time, every ballet company in the land is hauling out its version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, with much the same goal.


And now, it seems, Jane Austen has joined this august company.


Three years ago, playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon authored Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a Pride and Prejudice sequel that gives the neglected Mary Bennet a Yuletide romance. The play has now been produced everywhere from Northern California to Washington D.C., and at least one company—the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis—will be back for seconds next Christmas.


Miss Bennet’s popularity helped the prolific Gunderson earn the title of America’s “most-produced playwright” in 2017-18. (Further down the list was another Austen-inspired playwright, Kate Hamill.) And last year, Gunderson and Melcon followed up their Austenesque hit with The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, which takes place downstairs in the servants’ hall during the events of the earlier play.


Much to my chagrin, no company near me has yet staged either play—presumably, my local regional theater is too busy with the aforementioned A Christmas Carol—so I can’t comment on their quality or their fidelity to Austen’s characters.


Giving Austen the Certified Holiday Fun treatment, however, is a little odd. The "traditional" Christmas season, with its decorated trees, well-stuffed stockings, and gifts for the kiddies, is a Victorian invention, and Austen’s books, set in an earlier era, feature only three Christmas scenes, two of which are far from featuring unambivalent festive cheer. (See my discussion of the Christmas scenes in Persuasion, Emma, and Mansfield Park.) We love Our Jane, and we love Our Christmas, but, really, it’s only the Gunderson-Melcon imagination, plus the financial exigencies of cultural programming, that unites the two.


Still, far be it from me to object to any injection of Austen into our national cultural life. I’ll be first in line for tickets if Miss Bennet and The Wickhams join the holiday rotation anywhere near me.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 12 2017 01:00PM

Austen adaptations, whether on stage, screen or fanfic page, all too often fall victim to an excess of earnestness – the bonnets, the hushed voices, the leisurely strolls through manicured gardens. It’s the disease of costume drama, but in Austen’s case, it’s especially jarring, since the original source material is laced with energy and subversive wit.


Whatever you might have thought of actress/playwright Kate Hamill’s version of Sense and Sensibility, you couldn’t accuse it of lacking energy: As blog readers may recall, this is the version in which furniture careened around the stage on wheels and actors played multiple roles, sometimes in the same scene.


The whole thing was a lot of fun, so I was excited to learn that Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice, which premiered last summer in New York’s Hudson Valley, will be produced in New York City this fall. (My family already has tickets for December. We’re calling it my birthday present.)


And now comes an entertaining interview with Hamill, coinciding with a Dallas-area production of her new P&P. In adapting the book, Hamill says, she set out to break the costume drama mold. “There are several good, straightforward [stage] versions of it out there, along with those on film and television,” she says. “So I wanted to do something very theatrical and surprising, not the typical Pride and Prejudice.”


The company putting on the show has produced a fun promotional video featuring a two-on-two basketball game between Elizabeth and Jane Bennet and Messrs. Darcy and Bingley, all four clad in Regency attire and tennis shoes. Apparently, this picks up on game imagery embedded in Hamill’s script.


“I’m really interested in the way we codify love as a game,” she tells her interviewer. “Love is very serious, yet inherently a little bit silly—and we do tend to play it as something with rules, strategies, wins, losses. . . And the way we treat love as a game does tend to pit people against each other in a way that’s often broken down by gender.”


Looking forward to my birthday. . .


By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 6 2016 01:00PM

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to see a very enjoyable and ingenious stage production of Sense and Sensibility, performed in New York by the off-Broadway Bedlam theater company. After a spring vacation of sorts, performances resume next week, and WCSI, a Fox Radio station, recently interviewed playwright Kate Hamill, who also plays Marianne Dashwood.


In the interview, Hamill talks about how she began writing plays after realizing, as she lived on ramen noodles while making the rounds of New York auditions, how few stage roles were written by and for women, even though women make up the majority of theatergoers.


Hamill’s S&S emphasizes the funny side of Austen, and the price is some loss of emotional intensity. But the comedy is highly entertaining. Much Austen dialogue, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, is preserved. Furniture and props are mounted on casters and shoved into position from one end of the stage to the other – including in a memorable dinner-party scene in which actors simultaneously playing two different characters careen from one end of the table to the other without missing a beat. The undisguised artifice of the staging plays like a wry commentary on the artificiality of the manners on display.


The play has scored excellent reviews, including from many Janeites. “Those are my people,” Hamill tells her interviewer, Jane Metzler. “I’m very pleased that the Austenites like it. When I was first working on this, I thought, ‘If I don’t do this right, they’ll come after me with pitchforks.’ ” (Oh, honey – you were always safe. There’s so much Austen-related dreck out there that we can’t take the time to give everyone the pitchfork treatment.)


Hamill’s play, with a different cast but the same director, will be staged at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington D.C. this fall; a Sunday matinee is one of the special events on offer during the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America. And in the interview, Hamill announces good news for Janeites: apparently she’s already working on adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey.


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