Sylvie Davidson as the title character in Book-It Repertory Theatre’s production of “Emma.” Photo by Adam Smith
Sylvie Davidson as the title character in Book-It Repertory Theatre’s production of “Emma.” Photo by Adam Smith
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Welcome to the world according to Jane Austen. Book-It Repertory Theatre celebrates the 200th anniversary of Austen’s “Emma” with a leisurely adaptation. 

Directed by Carol Roscoe and adapted by Rachel Atkins, “Emma” sprawls over two and half hours — not all that excessive, given that Austen’s original novel contained 55 chapters. 

If you are expecting a Regency romp, “Emma” delivers more of a canter, albeit a charming one. Book-It’s production starts slowly, as does the novel, but gathers momentum as it unfolds. 

Devoted Austen readers eagerly await their favorite moments, while first-timers are schooled in the wit, satire and comedic elements of her timeless tome.  

“Emma” takes place during England’s Regency period (1811-1820), so named when the self-indulgent Prince Regent ruled in place of his father, King George III. King George was, to put it in modern terms, “off his rocker.” 

In London, royalty and noblemen made up the socially elite. But in the country, society’s highest-ranking members were based on economic standing, breeding and family connections. So it was that in the village of Highbury, Emma Woodhouse and her father were highly regarded for their wealth and status. In fact, Emma was the reigning debutante of the landed gentry. 

Austen leads us through a convoluted maze of relationships courtships and marriages, introducing an assortment of characters, starting with Emma. 

According to Austen, Emma is “handsome, clever and rich.” She is also a bossy-pants: spoiled, scheming, manipulative and used to getting her own way. And she fancies herself a matchmaker.

As the play begins, Emma (the spirited Sylvie Davidson) is preening over the fact that she has successfully orchestrated the marriage of her governess, Miss Taylor (Dedra D. Woods) to Mr. Weston (the good-natured Laurence Hughes).  She determines that her next project will be to find a husband for poor, lower-born Harriet Smith (the guileless Meme Garcia), a young woman of questionable parentage. 

Although gullible Harriet has her eye on Robert Martin (Adrian Cerrato), a humble farmer, Emma persuades her otherwise. Of course, she bows to Emma’s will; after all, Emma is her social superior. She knows that, as does Emma herself.

Her first candidate for Harriet’s hand is the vicar, Mr. Elton  (the delightful Jaryl Draper), an overly ingratiating, fawning excuse of manhood. You hope someone will take a flyswatter to him — the same flyswatter you took to the cloying vicar in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” 

Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse (the adorable dotty Brian Cameron), seems oblivious to anything that doesn’t relate to his comfort, his health or the weather. Emma easily wraps him around her little finger.

But she cannot do that with her good friend, Mr. George Knightly (the dashing Sylvester Foday Kamara). A squire of wisdom and wealth, he does not approve of Emma’s misguided meddling and doesn’t hesitate to tell her so. He thinks Mr. Martin is perfect for Miss Smith.

Not every Highbury resident is wealthy. Miss Bates, a kindly spinster with a penchant for gossip, and her mother live in genteel poverty, dependent on the generosity of others. 

So when Emma publicly belittles Miss Bates, Mr. Knightly takes her to task, the first of several epiphanies in store for the spoiled heroine. Unfortunately, Serin Ngai as Miss Bates almost throws away this important moment with a lackluster, almost-invisible response. 

Meanwhile, Emma fancies herself enamored of flirtatious Frank Churchill (the convincingly rakish Arjun Pande), who encourages her attentions to divert from his secret love affair. Enter Miss Jane Fairfax (the poised Sara Polorkab), an accomplished young woman, despite being orphaned. 

In contrast, the new wife Mr. Elton finally chooses is deliciously dreadful. Bragging about her wealth, Christine Marie Brown delivers the vulgar and pushy social climber with fiendish perfection — she had me at “barouche landau.”

Austen understood the superficiality and hypocrisy of Regency society; she herself came from landed gentry. In her world, social standing — with its posturing etiquette, superficial banter and sly insults — took precedence over kindness and good character. Some things simply weren’t done in polite society, unless you did them in private. And, of course, you never spoke of them.

Under Roscoe’s fine direction, the cast mirrors tea parties, dinners and picnics, fancy balls, even badminton games of Regency society. There is lovely singing and elegant period dancing.  

The action plays out on Andrea Byrn-Bush’s minimalistic set, covered with grass-green turf. Two round bushes double as flora and chairs. A three-tiered stack of turf — where is Edward Scissorhands when you need him — is moved from place to place, depending on the milieu. The sky-blue backdrop boasts floating cumulous clouds. A teeter-totter turns into a chess table. And floor-to-ceiling, empty white frames open and close to depict indoors or out. 

Thanks to costume designer Jocelyne Fowler and Josephine Bonaparte’s influence, Highbury’s ladies were attired in the latest Empire fashion, quite the rage in England. Men, even the servants, sported well-fitted tailcoats, although the narrow shoulders made them look taller than they actually were. 

Two centuries later, Austen’s fiction continues to inspire pop culture. There have been countless films and TV series based on “Emma,” including the 1995 film “Clueless,” which modernized the story. 

“Emma” is more than a comedy of manners. It remains relevant because the same characters are reflected in today’s society. Book-It’s production provides many charming moments, as well as a meaningful denouement.

Two-hundred-year-old Jane Austen is sitting pretty in Seattle. 

“Emma” plays at Book-It Repertory Theatre (305 Harrison St.) through Jan. 3. For ticket information, visit book-it.org.