“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.” So said Jane Austen.
Her advice has been well-taken by the Janeites who created this sometimes delightful, never less than amiable show, The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged. It’s an 18th-century romp, an affectionate tribute to the author whose characters live indelibly in the minds of readers all over the world.
Charlotte Northeast, Jessica Bedford, Kathryn MacMillan (who also directed) and Meghan Winch wrote the show. Actors Northeast and Bedford launch the proceedings, arguing about which of the novels is the greatest.
For Bedford it’s the best known, Pride and Prejudice, while for Northeast it’s Austen’s last novel, Persuasion. Both will be acted out — skipping from plot point to plot point — in the course of the evening. It isn’t necessary to know the novels, but it helps.
There is, of course, no way to “do” Austen without a man, and Trevor Fayle shows up just at the right moment, looking every inch the romantic hero, although with a mere switch of hats, he can become a bumbling clergyman, an indulgent father, or a caddish army officer.
In fact, hats are the key to all the characters in a show that makes do with remarkably little of any kind of stagecraft. The venue, the 18th-century Hill-Physick House in Society Hill, provides an authentic and handsome, if crowded, setting. Go early and enjoy the lovely gardens; leave time to read the brochure so as to appreciate the history of the place.
The script provides glimpses from time to time of profound interpretations of these often ironical fictions where society and its values are held up to a very bright light. Things go sideways only twice: There is a jarring Dungeons & Dragons interlude that makes no real sense, and the awkward declaration of loving friendship between Northeast and Bedford seems forced and tacked-on.
The world of Jane Austen was a world of marriage and money and manners. Women’s lives were severely limited. Although the plots of each novel revolve around matchmaking in one way or another, the show argues that, for Austen, the goal is not to find a husband but, ultimately, to find oneself.
The show’s real charm lies in its delicate negotiation between homage and parody.
Of course we wouldn’t want to go back to all that patriarchal restriction and snobbishness and economic restraint, not to mention those dreadful hairdos, and, yet, somehow, wouldn’t it be nice if people were, well, nice.
The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged
Performed by Tiny Dynamite through through June 16 at the Hill-Physick House, 321 S. 4th St. Tickets: $20, including a slice of pizza and a drink ($35 for Sunday tea, with scones and tea sandwiches). There are plans to remount the production this fall.