The mystifying charms of ‘The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged’ at Riverside Theatre

Aaron Stonerook and Jessica Link in ‘The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged.’ — Rob Merritt / Riverside Theatre

I’ve never really liked Jane Austen.

To be fair, I never read any of her books. I opted to allow the dominant medium of my era — film — to tell me her stories. Maybe I would have felt differently if I’d bit the bullet and read the prose directly, but I get a little bent out of shape thinking about a feminist icon who wrote exclusively about her heroines finding their husbands. Intellectually, I think I understood that Austen was writing about what was the most common social practice of the time, but emotionally I just couldn’t get past it.

So why did I volunteer to review The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged? Well, maybe I was ready to have my assumptions challenged.

Ladies and gentlemen, they were challenged.

On paper, I really shouldn’t have enjoyed this show. It’s about a writer I’ve intentionally avoided for years. The actors break the fourth wall, or rather, there is no fourth wall in this show — which typically drives me crazy. And the script employs some farcical bits that I usually find ham-handed when I see them; like explaining the plot of Northanger Abbey through the lens of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

Somehow, despite the particulars that would typically turn me off, it all worked — kind of spectacularly. Throughout the 80-minute runtime, I found myself laughing out loud, clapping with delight and leaning in, despite myself.

Jo Jordan (foreground) in ‘The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged.’ — Rob Merritt / Riverside Theatre

Jo Jordan’s girlish irreverence, against Jessica Link’s fanatical propriety, was delicious and captivating. Their relationship was that of standard comic and foil, but they also felt real and endearing: rather, I suspect, like many of Jane Austen’s female protagonists.

Aaron Stonerook, as the man who pops in off the street knowing nothing about Jane Austen, was a lovely entry point character for audience members like me. His lack of knowledge prompted much needed context, for a non-Austen acolyte, from the women onstage, in a way that felt authentic.

All three actors were nothing short of amazing, swapping characters with each hat, or nametag, they put on. It was a dizzying spectacle of acting prowess, as athletic as it was cerebral. The energy onstage was electrifying and it grabbed me. Each character they put on was as fully realized and fleshed out as any I’ve seen established over the course of a full-length play. Stonerook, particularly, played his ignorance so well at the beginning of the show, that the change that overtook him on donning his first hat was startling and bewitching.

Aaron Stonerook in ‘The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged.’ — Rob Merritt / Riverside Theatre

The costumes by Karlē J. Meyers are flattering and appropriate, and they subtly hit notes from the disparate eras of the early 19th century and today. The props by Stephen Polchert are aesthetically eclectic and utterly invisible until they’re needed, which is set dressing done well. Rachel Howell direction pulls these elements together into a frenetic tableau of nerd rage, fan love and utter respect for the subject matter.

The plot of this play is not complex. It’s something of a love letter to Austen, written in concert by Jessica Bedford, Kathryn MacMillan, Charlotte Northeast and Meghan Winch. One could even call it a debate between these playwrights, on which of Austen’s works is the best.

Some of the “scenes,” if one could call them that, do have slightly jarring tonal shifts, that could maybe be smoothed into more gradual tonal crescendos. And there were a few nods to some of the adaptations I haven’t seen, that needed to be explained to me. But ultimately, this was a heartfelt and lovely show that provided my date and I much enjoyable fodder for discussion after we left the theatre.

The cast of ‘The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged.’ — Rob Merritt / Riverside Theatre

There are eight more dates for this show, but the only one not sold out yet (as of Thursday morning), is this Sunday, May 22. For a truly unique theatre-going experience get your tickets now and bring your mask.

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