Savage Umbrella asks if Emma Woodhouse is a bitch

Tanner Curl (George Knightley), Kathryn Fumie (Emma Woodhouse) and Hannah K. Holman (Harriet Smith).
Tanner Curl (George Knightley), Kathryn Fumie (Emma Woodhouse) and Hannah K. Holman (Harriet Smith).
Photo by Carl Atiya Swanson
Jane Austen's Emma is no stranger to the modern update -- witness the 1995 film Clueless -- but Savage Umbrella has turned up the heat several notches in their latest company-created production, Emma Woodhouse is not a Bitch.

"Initially, we thought we should do something about the marriage amendment," says Savage Umbrella artistic director Laura Leffler-McCabe, who also crafted the adaptation with Tanner Curl. "The more we read the book, we realized it is so much about money and class and economics. We originally thought to queer the adaptation, but the focus has shifted to fiscal matters."

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Published in 1815, Austen's novel is centered on a somewhat alien world. "In Regency England, the classes were clearly defined. The adaptation takes the same issues of class and pastes it onto 2013. Certainly there are some things that don't work anymore, like the idea that a single woman is a spinster at age 27 and the only way to gain financial independence is to get married. Some issues have been sidestepped, but we kept a lot of them," Leffler-McCabe says.

"We have a very basic outline of the book. We stripped away the actual setting details, and got into the heart of the character arcs," Curl adds.

The adaptation sets the story's action over a trio of parties. "In Minnesota, you get stuck at these parties where you are forced to make all this small talk. The social circles are so small, and you have to be lovely to all of these people. That tension is really fun to play with in the show," says Heidi Jedlicka, the production manager.

Along with boiling down the settings, they also ended up with a company of 15 characters, almost all from the original book. The party setting gave the creators an interesting chance to mix and match. "It was surprising to watch some of the characters come together who never had a chance to get together in the book. We found those moments in the script that weren't inherently there, but that sprung out of good acting work," says director Blake E. Bolan.

"It's interesting to see what class assumptions people bring to the table. Rich people might not be as mindful of certain things. We are fleshing out the characters so we don't fall into stereotypes," says Curl, who also plays George Knightley.

And to the central question of the title?

"We'll be asking the audience to vote, whether or not Emma is a bitch or not," Jedlicka says.


Emma Woodhouse is a Bitch
Friday through Feb. 23
The Cedar Riverside People's Center Theatre
425 20th Ave S., Minneapolis
$12-20 sliding scale 
For tickets and information, visit online
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Cedar Riverside People's Center

425 20th Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55454


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