The subtitle of my review headline is a line spoken by an old, old friend of Emma, who is the female lead of this Jane Austen-inspired comedy of matchmaking. While Emma thinks she is the matchmaker par excellence, the trajectory of this riotous play disabuses her of that notion in no uncertain terms.

The old, old friend, as he is referred in the play, is Mr. Knightley (played with extreme forbearance by Stephen Mercantel). I say that because he must deal with Emma in the most patient and understanding manner. She is truly a trial: Ella Mia Carter wrings every ounce of angst from her character, whose matrimonial intentions overwhelm everyone else and finally drown her in a tsunami of regret. Her agenda gets derailed.

The cast is cohesive, and deliver a very high calibre performance with rapid-fire dialogue. Bailey Ellis is particularly supreme in his role as Mr. Elton. Next to Emma, he is the most exasperating of characters, with his insipid recitations and lovelorn looks. At first smitten with Emma (who is calls a “crackling green-eyed vixen”), he finds happiness elsewhere. Watching Ellis’ use of a puppet throughout much of the play is cringe-worthiness at its best.

Emma’s chief target for matchmaking is her friend Harriet, played with utter silliness by Michelina Haralson, who clearly relishes portraying such an innocent young lady with few accomplishments and even less money. She is, as is remarked, looking for something to occupy the many vacancies of her mind.

This play is set in the early 19th century, when Jane Austen herself was living. She wrote the book Emma in 1815, and it has never been out of print. Few books can lay claim to such longevity, but it surely is partly due to the eternal subject of matchmaking. “I never think, I only know,” declares Emma. While one may apply deep psychological analysis to the play, it would be misplaced. Emma, in her declaration, makes the application of logic null and void. This is a play that relies entirely on raw emotion, on the most delicate subject of all: who should one marry? And in a neat twist, the audience is made to feel culpable for Emma’s failings, so be prepared!

The superb ensemble cast includes Sarah Zeringue, Hans Venable, Laura A. Walberg, David Stahl, Nick Hunter, and James Davery. Sarah Chong Dickey also appeared, but had lost her voice the night I saw the play; her lines were read by director Lara Toner Haddock. I thought having her mouth the lines would have been more appropriate than adopting a closed-mouth stance.

This is a tremendous production, most highly recommended.

Tickets for Emma are at AustinPlayhouse.com

It runs thru June 30, 2024

Photo: Carter (l) and Haralson. Steve Rogers Photography

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.