Everyone is reading at the beginning of Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen's posthumously published commentary on late-18th-century Gothic novels, adapted for the stage by Pear Avenue Theatre artistic director, Diane Tasca. Gentlemen in top hats strut across the Pear's small space, their long noses pressed deep into their books. Young girls cluster and titter, discussing a delicious intrigue or plot twist that they, as privileged readers, have just shared. And as these characters read silently to themselves or pretend to chat with each other, other actors read aloud to the audience, reciting selected passages from Austen's book so that we might share in the story of Catherine Morland, a girl from a small town in southern England, who, at 15, is described by her loving, supportive, but praise-stingy parents as being "almost pretty."
Catherine, who is brought to life by Annamarie MacLeod, is a classic, guileless, Austen heroine. Naïve but intelligent, prone to errors in judgment but always well intentioned, and determined almost to the point of Polyanna, Catherine is the prototypical young girl learning the ways of the adult world. As the play opens, these lessons are taking place in Bath, where she falls for a dashing, well-spoken, and, most importantly, well-read young man named Henry Tilney (meticulously rendered by Michael Barrett Austin). The story might have ended there, with Catherine living happily ever after, but Austen creates mischief for her heroine by introducing her to Isabella Thorpe (Melissa Quine), who is a bit older and thus a lot wiser in the eyes of young, impressionable Catherine. As it turns out, Catherine's new BFF doesn't always have Catherine's best interests at heart (Quine imbues her character with such duplicity, we worry for Isabella's soul in the afterlife). Meanwhile, Isabella's boorish brother John (played broadly and brashly by William J. Brown III), who has domineering designs of his own on young Catherine, is an outright cad.
Throughout the play, the audience is treated to energetic, physical performances by the actors that go far beyond mere blocking. At times, the cast is called upon to dance, speaking their lines as they twirl, lock elbows, and promenade. Indeed, the entire play feels like a work of choreography, which makes it a delight to the eye. For example, instead of simply having a pair of actors stand and deliver their assigned lines of narration, director Ennals has those actors sweep into view in animated conversation as they stride across the stage. Even when they break the wall to turn to the audience and confide Tasca's carefully selected plot points and insights, they stay in motion, giving the play a pace that keeps it and the story moving briskly along (a good thing, too, since the Northanger Abbey runs 2 hours and 15 minutes, plus an intermission).
I won't spoil the plot twists or the ending for you, although it's not that difficult to guess where things are headed and which lessons our feisty heroine is destined to learn the hard way. You'll also see right away that the costumes by Trish Files are terrific. And the actors, most of whom play double, triple, and quadruple roles (sometimes as animals, occasionally as furniture), are uniformly great. In addition to MacLeod, whose young-girl-with-an-old-soul persona is pretty much irresistible, Katie O'Bryon bounces easily between the camp of Mrs. Thorpe and the utter sincerity and kindness of Eleanor Tilney. Martin Gagen plays his old-authority-figure roles to perfection, except when he's playing a horse, for which he gamely gets on his hands and knees to inject a bit of slapstick into the proceedings.
The stars of the show, though, are Austen's words, and the way in which Ennals has chosen to frame and illuminate them. It's the little things, like having one character speak the words "The most charming girl in the world" while the object of this tribute, Catherine, mouths the words to the audience, unable to contain her excitement at being so described, and needing to share it with someone, anyone, even a room full of strangers sitting in the dark. Our ears prick up when Catherine confides her hopes for the "horrid" pleasures that hopefully await at the Tilney's home, Northanger Abbey, where she imagines she might press open a secret passage and find herself face to face with "some injured and ill-fated nun." Even in the scene in which Gagen plays the horse, Ennals and Tasca prove to be good collaborators; no sooner have we begun grinning at this deliberately silly image than we realize that the actors are discoursing on the four-legged beast of burden. Gagen gets the incongruity of having to fill a horse's iron shoes as Austen's lovely language and rich sentiments swirl around him. If the performances of the actors are like watching a dance, hearing them speak Austen's words is like listening to music.
Northanger Abbey runs at The Pear Avenue Theatre through June 8, 2008. 1220 Pear Avenue, Mountain View. Performances are Thursdays - Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $12-$25. To order, go to Brown Paper Tickets, or call 650-254-1148.