Cap Rep takes a 21st century look at Jane Austen classic

Turning a 19th century Jane Austen novel into a modern-day staged play was both a little daunting an

Turning a 19th century Jane Austen novel into a modern-day staged play was both a little daunting and a whole lot of fun for Smith College professor Daniel Elihu Kramer.

Kramer’s original work, “[email protected]: A Romantic Deconstruction,” will be at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany through Oct. 28. It’s a 21st century look at the characters, themes and subplots that make up “Pride and Prejudice.”

Five actors portray 20 different characters from Austen’s 1813 book, and Kramer uses Austen’s words as well as other material taken from the Internet offered by bloggers, commentators and scholars, all of them huge Jane Austen fans, to flesh out the story.

Sense of freedom

“There is that moment when you say to yourself, ‘Well, this is something new,’ so inevitably there’s a sense of freedom that comes with that,” said Kramer. “At the same time, when people look in the newspaper and see ‘[email protected],’ and then they show up, you have to try to give them a lot of satisfaction. You have to give them what they showed up for.”

Kramer was commissioned by Available Light Theatre in Columbus, Ohio, to write some kind of new play about the book many fans believe to be Austen’s best. He spent about a year working on the play, and in 2010 the Columbus troupe performed it to favorable reviews.

It was produced at the Chester Theatre Company near Boston in 2011, again to favorable reviews. Four of the five actors at the Chester production, as well as director Ron Bashford, are working in the Capital Rep production.

“Originally the play had nothing to do with the Internet, so it very much evolved,” said Kramer. “They wanted something with a title that everybody knew and loved, and then as I was workshopping ideas with Columbus, I came aware of all this outpouring on the Internet about this book. I started looking at things online about the book, and I’d have 73 people with things to say about it. Somebody would ask a question about Jane Austen, and you’d get 15 responses. People are fascinated with her and her books, so I decided to make that whole experience part of the play.”

Like those people he met online, Kramer was a big fan of Austen and “Pride and Prejudice” before he began working on his play.

“I don’t know if it’s her best novel, but I’ve been a fan of Austen for a while, and I think ‘Pride and Prejudice’ might be her most communal work,” he said. “It’s a novel about groups of people and their interaction with other people and society. It’s a very social novel, and while it’s certainly not her first novel about romance, I think that’s part of the appeal of the book. It’s a social world, and that’s why we always associate her books with book clubs. People love them, and they really enjoy talking about them.”

Kramer, who teaches directing and acting at Smith College, got his training at the Yale School of Drama.

Telling a story

“I still do a lot of directing, and as I started to do more adapting of plays, I realized that whether I’m writing or directing, my job is storytelling,” he said. “And with this play, we wanted to emphasize the power of the actors and their ability to transform themselves and tell this story as a group. We knew we wanted to have an ensemble piece, and so I decided on three women and two men.”

Gisela Chipe, a native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, plays Jane Bennet, Jane Austen and three other characters in the show. A Jane Austen fan, Chipe grew up in Louisville, Ky., and got her professional training at the College of Charleston and the University of Delaware.

“I love Jane Austen, and I love doing that kind of high-styled period work,” said Chipe, who was part of the cast in Chester, Mass. “I wasn’t familiar with this play at first, but I was very curious about it, and when I heard about how you’d have to do five characters I thought that would be fun and be a challenge. The audience has to use its imagination, but as actors we’re telling the story, and to do five different characters we have to pull every trick we have out of our bags.”

According to Chipe, “[email protected]” is a great teaching vehicle that should help younger readers develop an appreciation of Austen, who lived from 1775-1817. A single woman who remained part of a close-knit family her entire life, Austen also wrote “Sense and Sensibility,” “Mansfield Park,” “Emma,” “Northanger Abbey,” and “Persuasion.”

“This is a great story about the human condition, and how we connect to other people around us,” said Chipe. “It’s great for every age group, and I’m also excited about the possibility of teachers bringing their students here to show how the adaptation of a classic novel can be studied in English classes. The issues Jane Austen was writing about are still with us today.”

Rest of cast

Joining Chipe in the cast are Aubrey Saverino as Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of the novel, Colin Ryan as Mr. Bennet, and Michele Tauber as Mrs. Bennet. New to the group and playing the romantic lead, Mr. Darcy, is Nick Dillenburg.

While Bashford has replaced Kramer as director, the playwright did travel to Albany to oversee the beginning of the production.

“I also worked very closely with the Chester production, and I also had the opportunity to come to this production and make a few revisions,” said Kramer. “It’s just a chance for me to tweak a few things, to maybe see what’s working and what we could have done better.”

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