I suspect I am as least as much of an “avowed Janeite” as writer Kate Hamill, who also takes on the role of Lizzie Bennett in her adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, under the direction of Amanda Dehner. With Pride and Prejudice, Hamill follows on the success of Bedlam’s 2016 production of Sense and Sensibility, offering up Austen’s best-known novel as “a screwball comedy.” Cutting through the period allure of posh accents and romance that obscures just how funny and clever Austen really is, this production is not modernized, but given nonetheless an energized contemporary spirit.
The set leaves Cherry Lane’s brick walls exposed, with only a piano and the occasional chair as the primary set pieces. When not onstage, the actors look on from the sidelines and the transition from “onstage” to “off” provides further opportunity for comedic touches. The tone is quickly set as all actors appear on stage for a hand chime rendition of “The Game of Love”—efficiently establishing the mash-up aesthetics and what emerges as the guiding theme of this production—the centuries-old exploration of just how “serious,” or not, love really is. The costumes by Tracy Christensen are a wisely simplified take on Regency dress, evoking the era without overburdening the production with period glamor, and allowing the actors to nimbly switch characters—as most are required to do, sometimes within the same scene. Mark Bedard, for instance, generally rises to the challenge of embodying Mr Collins, Ms. Bingley, and Mr. Wickham. Kimberly Chatterjee, Amelia Pedlow, Chris Thorn, and John Tufts are likewise given the opportunity to demonstrate their actorly range in both age and gender.
I had a mixed response to the casting of Bedard as Ms. Bingley and Tufts as Mary. Despite the actors’ undeniable skill, their first appearances in these roles generated what felt to me as a cheap laugh at “men in drag” and a disservice to the truly comedic characterization of the novel. Tufts’ interpretation of Mary grew on me, however, with the “drag” element of humor largely giving way to a suggested identification between Mary and the type now commonly identified as an “emo boy.” The psychological parallel is indeed apt, since both perhaps defensively turn to superior posturing and pretension in lieu of more conventional charms. The repeated shrieks at Mary’s apparent ugliness, on the other hand, risked obscuring this more subtle humor.
Other departures from a more conventional production, like pop music and moves at the balls, were both refreshingly alive and true to the spirit of the novel (the sexual tension and social anxiety of school dances probably is on par with Regency balls), but I admit to feeling rather like Mary myself in being unable to laugh at many of such slapstick moments that I’m confident I would have loved in another play (and of course, we all really want to be Lizzie). An extended bit of business with a chair by Bedard as Mr. Collins was, in itself, utterly brilliant—and was met with enthusiastic hilarity by most of the audience—as were other instances of over-the-top farce. My sticking point was, I think, that it all seemed like too much noise over the real rewards of Austen’s humor; the verbal gems, as Mr Bennett’s response to Mrs Bennett’s cry to consider her nerves: “I have the highest respect for your nerves, they are my old friends.” Not that the cast were incapable of delivering such zingers with aplomb. Thorn in particular (and as Mr. Bennett, he does get the lion’s share) hit the tone perfectly, but the cast is uniformly good, and Hamill does adeptly transform Austen’s words into a workable script that demonstrates her own warm enjoyment of the source text.
Despite my reservations about some of the more ludicrous excesses of the production, it did contain lighter touches that were more in keeping with Austen’s humor (the literary equivalent of a raised eyebrow rather than a face-plant). Bedard’s suave removal of Mr Wikham’s epaulettes with each exit, for example, visually replicates (in reverse) Austen’s wry epithetical introductions to her characters. There was admirable restraint in Thorn’s performance as Charlotte Lucas too, which allowed a darker note to emerge as she binds herself to the ghastly Mr. Collins. Darkness was also allowed its place in Lydia’s demise. Thanks to Chaterjee’s truly youthful interpretation, the genuine horror of her seduction by Wikham resounds with a clarity given even greater potency in the current moment as Lizzie exclaims, “She’s only fourteen!”
As a whole, my early skepticism gave way in the second act. Initially, Hamill as Lizzie seemed to be pushing a touch too hard, her voice somehow caught between the character’s famous liveliness and an unnatural English accent. She and Jason O’Connell as Mr. Darcy too early and too readily gave in to awkward anxiety around each other in a way that gave credence to the theatre myth that if actors are romantically involved offstage (the program notes that the two are partners), there won’t be any chemistry onstage. We were denied the contrast between the absolute goofiness of Jane and Mr. Bingley, charmingly established by Amelia Pedlow and a terrier-esque Tufts, and Lizzie and Darcy’s equally foolish coolness—not to mention the delightful mutual crumbling of said coolness when they finally give in to love. Hamill relaxes into the role, however, and O’Connell nicely conveys Darcy’s struggle with his accustomed stiffness and desire to give in to his feelings for Lizzie. And, yes, that essential chemistry was there finally. By the end of the play, the pair had earned their cute deferral of a romantic embrace through awkward 90s dance moves, and had me internally urging them to kiss. Just as it should. Just as they did.
With any adaptation there lurks the question of why bother? What is this version doing that the original can’t? Theatrical and screen adaptations, in particular, can be deadened by a superficial adherence to the source text, which might meet with approval by self-proclaimed purists, but is unlikely to actually recreate the response generated by the original. Updatings and resitings risk a sometimes trite and oversimplified transference of “key themes” or “relevance.” Hamill has, I think, tried instead to create for her audience a Pride and Prejudice as she experiences it herself. And so, it is flawed—frustratingly so—but it is also imbued with the delight that comes from reading a brilliant novel, given full expression by a talented cast and crew. As a fellow Janeite, I can’t find too much fault with that.
Pride and Prejudice runs to January 6, 2018. More production info can be found here.