Jane Austen Reclaimed and Retold
A Small Hole at FringeNYC
Mansfield Park is widely considered to be one of Jane Austen’s least popular works. Perhaps it has something to do with a heroine viewed as ineffectual, or the book’s depiction of a strict moral code that disapproves of theatrical performance. But to playwright Julia Jarcho, the novel is an ideal blueprint for deconstructionist feminist drama.
A collaboration between Jarcho and Performance Lab 115 as a part of the New York International Fringe Festival, A Small Hole is a retelling of Mansfield Park, dragging Austen’s problematic novel out of the 19th century—colonialist baggage and all—and examining the text through a distinctly 21st century lens. “I think A Small Hole is pretty directly an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel,” says Jarcho. “The attempt is to dwell on the alienation between the novel and the contemporary reader.”
Taking a major portion of the play’s text directly from Mansfield Park, Jarcho uses Austen’s own words to highlight sexual and political elements inherent, but otherwise invisible, in Austen’s novel. “I really do like the novel a lot,” admits Jarcho, “but there’s actually a space of strife because of the way the reader reacts against the constraints of the characters and the horrible political truths underlying Mansfield life.” The result is a theatrical meditation on slavery, class segregation, and the oppression of what the playwright calls “prudish morality.”
In the PL115 production, director Alice Reagan replaces the muttonchops and Laura Ashley prints typical of most Austen adaptations with voyeurism and sadomasochism. Stripping Fanny Price, the timid heroine of Mansfield Park, down to her corset and confining her to a box for a majority of the play, Reagan confronts the problem of staging a novel by employing aggressive theatricality. “Fanny’s not human; she’s a myth,” says Reagan. “A woman without sexuality isn’t really there—she’s like air or smoke.”
Although Jarcho had already completed an initial draft of the script, Reagan and the PL115 acting ensemble decided to first tackle the physical structure of A Small Hole. “We didn’t work from the script first,” says Reagan. “Instead we worked from the novel.” Relying on the Austen canon—as well as all its permutations in popular culture—the director and her cast developed the physical language of A Small Hole by primarily exploring stereotypes. “We looked at stereotypes in the book, but we also said ‘what’s a stereotypical Jane Austen movie like?’ Once we got that, we could add the whips, swear words, and change the locations around.”
Which brings everything back to Jarcho’s original question about Mansfield Park; namely, how does one make the jump from the pages of a novel to the theatrical space of a play? How dangerous is it to take Austen’s words and put them into action via bodies that interact? “This conflict between reader and text can get pretty titillating,” says Jarcho. “So to some extent, the play is an exploration of the fantasy of letting these tensions bring themselves to frenetic crisis.”
A Small Hole runs from August 11-27 as part of The New York International Fringe Festival; tickets and showtimes are available at www.FringeNYC.org or by calling 1-888-FringeNYC.
PAUL MENARD is artistic director of the Art Party Conglomerate, a multi-disciplinary collective.
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