Tuesday 10 March 2020

Theatre Review: Cheer From Chawton, 14th Street Y, New York City

Another post for Jane Austen fans! 

Last month I wrote about attending a marathon reading of Jane Austen’s 1818 Persuasion in the beautiful setting of the King Manor Museum in Queens. This month it was time for another event perfect for so-called Janeites—a one-woman play at the 14th Street Y in Manhattan.

Cheer From Chawton is a play that playwright and actor Karen Eterovich has been performing for over ten years. She’s taken it to museums and theatres, played for British and American audiences, and answered lots of questions from crowds along the way.

The conceit is that Jane Austen has been tricked by her family at their home in Chawton. They’ve left her to tackle an unrehearsed solo performance, rather than engaging in their normal amateur theatricals. ‘Jane’ relates the story of her life and changing fortunes as a novelist, giving us occasional cameos of her most memorable characters. There are even roles for unwitting members of the audience, as Eterovich pulls spectators onstage, or, in the guise of Miss Bates from Austen’s 1815 Emma, moves through the crowd, addressing us by different names.

The play is good fun, if a little chaotic. I did wonder what those who’ve never read Austen, or seen adaptations of her works, would have made of it! But, more than ten years on, the show is still finding its audience—diehard fans, who are so familiar with Austen’s oeuvre that they can move from scene to scene, and even from novel to novel, with ease.

At the close of the show, Eterovich held a brief Q&A session, fielding enquiries about her process and the places she’s taken the play. I asked her what question was the most common on her tours. She told me that she’s often asked about the feat of memory involved in learning lines of early-nineteenth-century prose. Her answer? Memorising Austen is a great way to realise how word-perfect the writing is.

I can well believe it. In an era when many first encounter Austen on-screen, in period dramas complete with lavish costumes, brilliant ball scenes, and the occasional nudity (hello Johnny Flynn in the opening scene of the 2020 film adaptation of Emma!), Cheer From Chawton still delights with few props, no visual effects and no dashing male lead. How extraordinary that Jane’s words are still echoing through the centuries.

Do you know of any other NYC-based shows the Secret Victorianist may want to review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And, if you’re on Team Bronte vs. Team Austen, or just love all things nineteenth-century, check out the details about my upcoming novel, Bronte’s Mistress, here.

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