Pear kicks off new season with 'Northanger Abbey' | September 7, 2018 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - September 7, 2018

Pear kicks off new season with 'Northanger Abbey'

Stage performance ditches British accents but captures Austen's charm

by John Orr

There were some carping critics in the lobby at The Pear Theatre following the nearly three-hour performance of "Northanger Abbey" on Saturday. Despite its length, "Northanger Abbey" is really very enjoyable, and carries the audience happily along with the language of Jane Austen, as adapted by Pear founder Diane Tasca.

Leslie Ivy was beautiful, lively and fun as Catherine, the young daughter of a reverend. She loves "horrid" novels that require heroes. Her family, the Morlands, have moved to Bath, which she finds lovely for long walks and for visits to the Pump Room, where all the "propertied swells" meet to dance and gossip.

There, she is befriended by Eleanor Tilney, played by the always lovely Damaris Divito, and is caught by the charms of Eleanor's brother, Henry Tilney, played with confidence by Peter Ray Juarez.

The next night, Henry is missing but John Thorpe is there, played by Matthew Brown (last seen at The Pear as a rotating hot dog in one of the short plays performed during the "Pear Slices" event earlier this year).

Brown does such a good job portraying the lying, manipulative Thorpe, that it's all the audience can do to not boo and hiss anytime he steps on stage.

Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey" was one of her last novels, and fairly short, at just more than 100 pages. Still, a novel carries a lot of information, and Tasca's script delivers it in a clever way, by having the eight cast members deliver both dialogue and exposition as they cross from one side of the stage to the other. For instance, "Woman 2"crosses the stage while saying: "As a celebrated writer has maintained, it must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before the gentleman is first known to have dreamt of her."

How very Jane Austen, and certainly the thoughts of young Catherine, who is smitten with Henry.

Catherine also is befriended by Isabella Thorpe, played with appeal and talent by Dana Reynolds. The two young women share a love of horrid novels.

While the romance of Catherine and Henry continues in fits and starts, Isabella — sister of the creepy John — invites Catherine to stay at her family's estate, Northanger Abbey. Catherine leaps at the chance, hoping for the spooky corridors, hidden rooms and ghosts of the horrid novels she reads.

But the horrid behavior is really that of John Thorpe, who several times creates significant problems for Catherine by promulgating lies about her.

Ivy delivers a lovely performance, portraying a fine and charming Catherine, ranging from childish hopes of a teen to more nuanced needs of an adult, always with gentility. Reynolds seems to belong in this time period, very much the upper class, educated and gracious young lady. Divito, who plays Mrs. Thorpe, Eleanor Tilney and takes ensemble parts, balances her roles like a skilled juggler. Juarez is smoothly charming throughout as Henry.

The cast doesn't much bother with trying to speak with British accents, which works well for the most part. Instead we get to hear their more-or-less normal voices as they concentrate on their characterizations. The only voice that didn't entirely work was that of Jim Johnson, who plays at least four roles. Johnson, who has been terrific at The Pear and at The Dragon and elsewhere, has a kind of Western or Midwestern America twang that just didn't fit, although he brought other skills to his performance. He was an excellent and funny horse.

Almost everybody in the cast stumbled through a line at least once. They had three weeks of rehearsal, but it is a long play with a lot of lines; it is likely the delivery will be smoothed out soon.

Costumes by Trish Files were quite good for the men, less so for the women. Fine-cut military jackets for Henry, John and others; basic frocks for the women. Catherine, while walking in a garden, riding in a shay or dancing in the Pump Room, has one white dress with a red belt with no easily visible lace or other trim. Most of the other women at least occasionally had short jackets to add to their ensembles.

Of course, Ivy is on stage constantly, so a change of costume would be difficult. Still, some lace or other ornamentation would have been nice.

It's a colorblind cast, which I applaud. An insert in the press kit notes that some white-racist hate groups have taken to thinking of Jane Austen as bastion of white family life; this cast is a lovely poke in the eye for such people.

What: "Northanger Abbey."

Where: Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View.

When: Through Sept. 23; see online for performance schedule.

Also: A "junior" cast performs the same show in repertory, using the same set, through Sept. 22.

Cost: $15-$35.

Info: Go to thepear.org or call 650-254-1148.

John Orr is a freelance writer for the Weekly. He can be reached at johnorr@regardingarts.com.

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