Great Books, Live Onstage

Northanger Abbey, Theater Ten Ten's clever new play, merges the best of Jane Austen—engaging heroines and romantic plots—with the gothic suspense of Ann Radcliffe, an earlier, 18th-century English novelist. But playwright Lynn Marie Macy can't take all the credit: Austin's Northanger Abbey makes many references to Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. This modern production of Austen's book, directed by David Scott, takes those references off the page and plays them as actual scenes that are woven into Austen's story. The result is a vibrant interpretation of a classic. The stage is set for our journey into books, with richly bound, oversized copies of English literary masterpieces forming a backdrop and filling the stage. The gilded spines open and close to reveal the characters' entrances and exits. All of the staged action happens in front of yet another book. This smaller, illustrated volume takes us from the streets and ballrooms of Bath, England, to the eerie mountain castle of Udolpho, in Italy. Characters come by and turn the pages as each scene changes, transporting the audience back and forth between the two worlds.

Director David Scott ties the two books together even more by doubling the roles. The protagonist from one is also the protagonist in the other. The actors portray the same type of character—the love interest, the cad, the deceitful lady—in both stories. We begin to see the parallels between the "real" scenes (the plot of Northanger Abbey) and the "imaginary" ones (the parts of The Mysteries of Udolpho that are enacted onstage).

Our partner on this journey is Catherine Morland (Tatiana Gomberg), the heroine of Austen's novel. She travels from her country home to the wealthy resort town of Bath with family friends in order to experience the world, but she can't seem to keep her nose out of a book (that book is, of course, The Mysteries of Udolpho). In Bath, she tours the social scene, meeting the charming Henry Tilney (Julian Stetkevych), the coquettish Miss Isabella (Summer Hagen), and Isabella's roguish brother, John Thorpe (Timothy McDonough). With all her new acquaintances, Catherine's real-world romantic adventures start to compete with the exciting stories she's been reading. When she visits Northanger Abbey, she finds herself in a situation nearly as fantastic.

As Catherine, Tatiana Gomberg sparkles in every scene and makes for a vivacious heroine. Her Catherine is refreshingly three-dimensional: smart, clever, and capable. Her bold manner when speaking directly to the audience perhaps makes her not what Austen intended, but she's perfectly suited for modern audiences. She's so enthusiastic that we're happy to follow her wherever her fancies take her.

Gomberg is nicely supported by Summer Hagen as Isabella; the young debutante is delectably bratty and pouty. McDonough seemed to enjoy his role as Isabella's arrogant, blowhard brother, while Stetkevych is so delightful as Catherine's love interest Tilney that he left me wishing Austen had made the character more prominent in the novel.

The costumes, designed by Jeanette Aultz, are lovely period pieces; Aultz paid great attention to detail, even down to Miss Morland's undergarments. In many of the crowd and party scenes, the ensemble functioned as colorful, animated set dressings. The ladies and gentlemen of Bath were so well dressed that it was easy to overlook that some of them sped through their lines, making them almost unintelligible.

The second act dragged a little, though that flaw is more in the source material than in Macy's script. A pantomimed scene of Catherine's midnight encounter with the wild, imaginary horrors lurking in Northanger Abbey was so wonderful that the remainder of the play paled in comparison.

As Catherine discovers, reading a book can't beat live experiences. This energetic production is a perfect example. Theater Ten Ten's adaptation of Northanger Abbey brings new life to what is considered one of Austen's lesser-known works while showcasing a lesser-known writer whose work made this 19th-century classic possible.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post