Theatrics at Mansfield Park  by Jane Austen

Dates and Venue 2-9 Jan 2010 @ 8pm every evening except Monday & Matinee 9 Jan @ 2pm. | Jericho Arts Centre, Vancouver

Reviewer Roger Wayne Eberle

The Vital Spark Theatre presentation of Joan Bryans’ Theatrics at Mansfield Park opened Saturday night to a sell-out crowd. Ms. Bryans has written a cozy little comedy of manners that manages to endear her principals to the audience without the cloying sentimentality so often associated with the genre. Indeed, plenty of good wit and irony are woven into the script about the Austen household who put on a play about a household putting on a play.

The comedy surrounding the incompetence of amateur actors, the reticence of a stodgy cleric to be involved in the play, along with a variety of relationship entanglements within the household, combine to make for some very lively theatre.

Theatregoers are first warmed up for the presentation with a glass of mulled apple cider and a “Maid of Honour” tart. Then, Diana Sandberg starts the proceedings off in the character of Mrs. Austen, and after a homey family welcome to the audience who are arranged at tables in dinner theatre seating, she delivers a rousing rendition of Willem de Fesch’s “O welcome, my good friends.” This is one of several traditional songs zestfully performed by various actors throughout the play to Pat Unruh’s capable harpsichord accompaniment.

While many strong dramatic performances combine to make this an engaging and enjoyable play, there were a few who make the performance most memorable and pleasing to watch. The always-eminently-distinguished James Gill acquits himself admirably throughout, and is especially laughable when he is at his worst—and by that I mean when he is pretending to be a ham actor trying to learn his lines. Among the many who aim to portray bad actors in this play within a play, James Gill may well be the most compelling. His misremembered lines and false starts make for some laughable scenes, and the only other match for his random grandiloquent gestures comes from Samuel Barnes’ sombre and deliciously deadpan delivery as the reluctant thespian, cleric Edmund Bertram.

If you like body language, you are sure to be well-pleased by the expressive stage presence of Melissa Oei. As the wealthy unattached Eliza Handcock, Melissa is a delight to watch. First she’s a show-stealer in the company production of the old Scottish folk-song “The Wraggle-Taggle Gypsies” and next she delivers an artful rendition of Sir Walter Raleigh’s reply to Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love.” Ms. Oei is animated and vivacious in both her roles, and although the script suggests there may be reason for sparks to fly between her Mary Crawford character and Edmund Bertram, the fact that they don’t is mainly because of Samuel Barnes interpretation of his character as an overly-straight-laced, somewhat wooden introvert.

To be sure, contrasts and intriguing juxtapositions abound, in this production, making it clear that Ms. Bryans is both an able director and a creative playwright. I am reminded of one of Jane Austen’s more memorable quotes: “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.” This ironic statement belies the undercurrent of consequence running below the superficial train of triviality that travels along the track of existence. Beneath the froth and frenzy of activity is the faith in amiable friends and family. A good plot-line, fine acting and melodious musicality are all consequential reasons you should interrupt your busy schedule and enjoy Theatrics at Mansfield Park.

© 2010 Roger Wayne Eberle