Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review - Monetizing Emma (Thackeray Walsh, LLC and the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity)

Review by Bryan Stryker

Investing in the future.

It’s a phrase that we are all very familiar with, having heard it from everyone from parents to politicians. There’s an entire sector of the financial industry devoted to investing in the future of various commodities. But what if you could invest your money in the future of America’s youth. Felipe Ossa’s thoroughly enchanting, mesmerizing, and engrossing new work, Monetizing Emma, takes on this premise and fully delivers.

Meet Emma Dorfman (Nitya Vidyasagar), a shy, sweet, unassuming though highly gifted 15-year-old girl enthralled by the works of Jane Austen. As the play opens, she’s being interviewed as a prospective “commodity” that will be included as part of a new offering – “The Genius Trust.” Her background, interests, studies, and indeed her whole life are being scrutinized by Colleen (Janice Mann) and Tony (James Arden), commodity brokers overseeing the Trust, to see whether or not she would be a valuable addition. Colleen swears by her due diligence, while Tony hedges on whether or not Emma is the right candidate. Ultimately, Colleen wins out and encourages Emma’s mother Caroline (Dawn Jamieson) to do what it takes to get her daughter to join in.

While pondering whether or not to join the trust, Emma slips into her Jane Austen inspired make-believe world, penning a letter to her online friend, whom she calls Miss Elizabeth Woodbury, while signing her letters as “Kitty Gordon.” While Emma is shy and a bit timid in person, it is in this Austen world where she truly comes alive. The words here come effortlessly for Emma but in the presence of her mother she is silent. With her mother pushing all the right buttons, Emma finally relents and agrees to be the newest commodity of the Genius Trust.

No decision comes without a price. When word leaks that Emma was selected for one of the coveted positions, her school’s resident mean girls, Vanessa (Daniella Rabbani) and Annie (Tovah Rose) begin to terrorize her in the bathroom. Annie was wait-listed for the trust but if Emma gives up her position, she may be able to take part. Faced with threats of their spreading horrible rumors about her, Emma’s decision to continue her involvement with the venture wavers again. Over lunch with Colleen, Emma expresses her decision to drop out and is only spared when Tony mentions the essay she submitted with her application. Outing himself as a closet Jane Austen fan, Tony uses Emma’s words against her and convinces her to remain a part of the project. A friendship forms between the two, and Tony begins to bring Emma out of her shell. The only problem – Tony’s love of Jane Austen is a lie, a lie that has sparked romantic feelings in the adolescent Emma.

When the Genius Trust needs a face to promote the product to investors, Tony is more than willing to use Emma again. When sweet, innocent Emma is splashed across advertisements, the bond’s growth rate reaches exponential proportions, and Emma is now thrust into celebrity spotlight. Tony’s star is on the rise at his firm with a bonus and sizable promotion in his future. The Mean Girls court Emma for companionship while the Mean Girl at the firm plans to bring Tony down. The letters that Emma’s Kitty Gordon penned to Elizabeth Woodbury were being received by Colleen, proving her due diligence skills to be spot on. Hurt by the deception on both Colleen and Tony’s parts, Emma retreats back into her shell dismissing the pleas of her mother and friends. Only in reviewing the demands made upon her by the trust does Emma find the path to escape and truly stand on her own feet.

Felipe Ossa has written a powerful piece commenting on society’s desire to make money at almost any expense while simultaneously demonstrating our own personal desires to stay true to our own selves. Nitya Vidyasagar is the master of the dry sarcastic wit as she drolly delivers line after line, immediately demonstrating that Emma’s wisdom goes far beyond her years. Her body language is a careful study of teenage angst and awkwardness. When not on stage, her performance leaves the audience anticipating her return.

James Arden and Janice Mann are perfect foils for each other as the warring bankers determined not to get one-upped by the other. “Slimy” is the word that immediately comes to mind for Arden’s Tony, while “barracuda” seems appropriate for Mann’s Colleen. Their onstage chemistry is delightful to watch as they fight for control of Emma. The only note that doesn't ring true is costume designer Mira Veikley's choice of shoes for Colleen. Her gogo boots are an odd choice on a character who probably would feel much more at home in a pair of stilettos.

Ensemble members Dawn Jamieson, Tovah Rose, and Daniella Rabbani all shine in their moments on stage. Jamieson as the worrisome, if not manipulating mother, Caroline, arouses both sympathy and ire as she leads the audience to wonder if she loves her daughter or is more interested in the money she can generate. Rose and Rabbani delight as the Mean Girls who torment Emma, bringing a high school cruelty to life.

Leah Bonvissuto stages an extraordinary production that seamlessly transitions from scene to scene and still keeps the audience engaged. Her creative vision, Jane Austin meets "The Matrix," is fully realized and works sublimely. As the actors reset scenic designer Jasmine Vogue Pai’s set, they stay in character keeping the audience fully immersed in the story and never letting the tension that slowly builds throughout the show lapse. Never before has so much been done with just three chairs, a table, and a lamp. Pai’s set coupled with Laura Parrish’s excellent lighting takes Monetizing Emma from a simple festival play to fully staged production. This is a show that is not to be missed.

Monetizing Emma
Written by Felipe Ossa
Directed by Leah Bonvissuto
Scenic Designer: Jasmine Vogue Pai
Lighting Designer: Lauren Parrish
Costume Design: Mira Veikley

Featuring: James Arden (Tony), Dawn Jamieson (Caroline), Janice Mann (Colleen), Daniella Rabbani (Vanessa), Tovah Rose (Annie), Nitya Vidyasagar (Emma)

Planet Connections Theatre Festivity
440 Studios
440 Lafayette Street, 3rd Floor

Wednesday, June 17th at 8 PM
Friday, June 19th at 6 PM
Monday, June 22nd at 4 PM
Tuesday, June 23rd at 6 PM
Thursday, June 25th at 8 PM
Friday, June 26th at 8 PM

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