By Talia Winiarsky
Every Thursday through Sunday in Riverside Park through July 24th, Hudson Classical Theater Company performs an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma for free — and there’s no several-hours-long line.
On those evenings, at 6:30 p.m., the company assembles on the patio at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument at 89th Street and Riverside Drive. Viewers need a mask and proof of vaccination to see playwright and Executive Artistic Director Susane Lee’s adaptation of the classic novel. The actors perform right in front of the audience, who sit on the stairs facing the patio. Some actors move up the stairs in moments of passion, as though the audience doesn’t exist.
While the book is set in 18th-century England, the play takes place during the 1950’s in Newport, Rhode Island. Although the settings exist centuries apart, they both feature an emphasis on wealth and social hierarchy.
The play’s eponymous character, played by Deborah Bjornsti, loves to play matchmaker. She is determined to find a husband for a schoolgirl named Harriet (Harley Seger), who has unknown origins. But when Emma meddles in Harriet’s relationships, the consequences expand to their whole social circle, including to Emma herself. It’s a comedic play that has the audience laughing at many lines.
The actors wear traditional 1950s attire, including red polka-dotted dresses for women, and suspenders and fedoras for men. The play includes pop-culture references from the era, such as Buicks, Truman Capote, and high society enjoying Jell-O salad. It also makes a few jokes that hit close to home — Mrs. Elton (Marie Dinolan) hopes for Jane’s (Cecelia Auerswald) sake that her nannying placement isn’t on the undesirable Upper West Side.
Lee’s anachronous setting choice gave her artistic liberties, she said. “It’s pretty much totally rewritten,” she said.
The company did not have to be strict with the language, which allowed it to have a more relaxed tone. Lee also added in plot points and scenes that didn’t exist in the book. “I want to see more characters interact, relationships deepen,” Lee wrote in the playbill.
The play’s plot is timeless, Bjornsti, who played Emma, said. The characters are “very real people,” she said. “It’s about a woman’s relationship with her father, with her best friend, with the people in her town.”
Bjornsti, who has performed with the company since 2015, said she enjoys performing in Riverside Park despite the challenge of the noise of the city. “People walk up and they’re like, ‘Oh, my God, they’re doing a Shakespeare,’” she said. “We’re here, right here, right now in the middle of Riverside Park.”
Louis Felix, a tourist from LA, found out about the production by walking through the park, and it was his first time seeing a play in a park. “It seemed like a really New York experience,” he said.
Since the play features many picnic scenes, the outdoor setting added to the experience, audience member Sasha Tailor said. The play was also fun to see live because the movie adaptation with Anya Taylor-Joy came right before the lockdown, she said.
The setting makes the production accessible, which aligns with the company’s mission, Lee said. According to the website, they strive to “delight our diverse audiences with intimate and accessible interpretations of classical literature.”
The company furthers this mission by offering free tickets with no reservations needed, Lee said. “A lot of people said that they’ve never even been to theater before, but they come to us,” she said.
Art allows Lee to unite people in her audience, including those who don’t usually experience theater, she said. “Being who I am, who has always been an outsider in every aspect of my life, to create something where we all can come together and share an hour and a half and enjoy something, is magical.”