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Photograph: Johnny KnightNorthanger Abbey at Remy Bumppo Theatre Company

Northanger Abbey at Remy Bumppo Theatre Company: Theater review

Jane Austen's novel comes to life as vividly as its heroine's fantasies in director Joanie Schultz's playful staging.

Imagine the quintessential Austen heroine: smart but plucky, cute but not beautiful (“almost pretty,” an aunt declares). As Catherine Morland, Sarah Price has the perfect balance of wit, superlative-prone enthusiasm and rubbery physicality to win our affection with ease—just as she does with Mr. Henry Tilney (Greg Matthew Anderson).

Tim Luscombe’s adaptation of Austen’s novel includes much of the sly parody of a society that views women as decidedly inferior to men; Morland is so utterly educated in the reading of novels (the lesser, decidely female genre), she is unable to think critically about the world around her. In Morland, Austen anticipated Flaubert’s Emma Bovary: a character so entranced by romanticism, she is unfit for the banalities of life. I’ll never be happy in love, Catherine declares early on, so I might as well spend my life reading about it.

Of course, Northanger Abbey is a romance, too; in Henry Tilney, Austen creates a most charming, (nearly) egalitarian match for Catherine: a man who not only appreciates novels (that female preoccupation), but also shares Catherine’s passion for Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. Director Joanie Schultz understands the text and our heroine well—perhaps especially in the link between repulsion and attraction; as in many Austen novels, Morland finds Tilney’s banter as offensive as he is compelling.

Schultz stages all of this (and more) with an elegant playfulness—lighting, set design and Thomas Dixon’s original music ease our transition from the constrictions of Morland’s life to the heightened reality of her dreamscape. Part of the fun here is watching Morland’s willful misreading of her surroundings, even if it falls to Tilney to teach her that life is far less dramatic than a gothic novel and, as he puts it, “no one is entirely black or entirely white.” In an early scene, he compares a cotillion to a marriage. As a bit of rhetoric, Schultz has rendered it perfectly on stage: As Austen makes clear, social formalities—like marriage itself—involve not a small degree of performance.
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