Pride and Prejudice by Kate Hamill adapted from the novel by Jane Austen, Directed by Amanda Dehnert, September 29 to October 29, 2017, Seattle Rep.
You know how on the Facebooks people admit to all sorts sorts of social crimes and faux pas that they would never confess to in polite society? Here's mine:
I've never read Pride and Prejudice.
Not only that, I don't think I've sat all the way through a movie version of the book,or a fourteen-part presentation of it on Masterpiece Theater. I'm not an Austen fan, though I have no problem with her writings, nor with people who love her works to pieces. That's cool. Put me down as an Austen Ally. Maybe even Austen-Adjacent. But not as someone who goes out of his way to partake of even a bit of Austen.
So I looked upon this production with a jaundiced eye (I had dodged the musical version of Persuasion earlier in the year, but there is only so must Austen one can flee from before one must succumb to the inevitable). My feelings of concern were increased by a scathing review in the Seattle Times, which notes (among other crimes) that they pared the characters in the book down to eight actors (a sister from the novel disappears entirely). Adding to my disquiet was the fact that the Lovely Bride and a friend attended the tech rehearsal, and gave it pretty neutral reviews - "Not for purists" would be the kindest statement.
And they are absolutely right.This is a much more theatrical version of the book, its characters broader, louder, more colorful, and ruder that in the more stuffy, proper Merchant Ivory versions. Beware: here be pratfalls. And double entendres. And cross-talk and very un-British emotions.
You know the story, I know the story. Elizabeth Bennet meets Lord Darcy and finds him to be a complete a-hole. Over time she recognizes that her own attitudes (and bad advice from others) have colored this opinion. Meanwhile Lord Darcy has fallen for this strong-willed, intelligent woman, but the very structure of society prevents the two from just sitting down over coffee and talking about it. She realizes he is an ideal mate after all and hops down from her perch to really fall in love. This is against the background of the Bennet household, where there are four daughters (downsized from five), a distant father, and a mother actively campaigning to get them all married off.
And the actors bringing all this across are really good. Kjestine Anderon is a smart, neurotic Lizzy (The Lovely Bride, who is an Austen fan, noted that the movies always have a beautiful Jane but a still-stunning Elizabeth). Kenajuan Bentley is a perfect Darcy, and you can see the ice flaking off him as he has to come to terms with his affection for Lizzy. He also freestyles, which would not happen in a proper adaptation.
These two are the "sane" ones in the production, and as we move out, they get loopier. Cheyenne Casebier treats Mrs. Bennet (the secret protagonist of the original book) as top sarge in a military campaign to get the girls married off to good connections. Emily Chisholm's Jane is more gob-smacked into silence by Bingley than too polite to confess her attraction, and hilarious at it. Hana Lass's Lydia is a Visigoth of a youngest child, and heel-turns neatly to portray Lady Catherine, Darcy's elite, effete, aunt. Brandon O'Neill takes up three roles - the military bounder Wickham, Bingley's sister as a turbaned lady of fashion, and Mr. Collins, a clergyman melding bits of Jerry Lewis and Austin Powers.
And there are actors in actresses roles, which I thought I would hate to bits. Rajeev Varma melds neatly between Mr. Bennet (giving him some weight and gravitas) and Lizzie's practical friend Charlotte. But Trick Danneker seems to have the best time of the lot, playing both Mr. Bingley as a Labrador retriever and as Mary, the plain Bennet sister, whose appearance often startles the others. I thought this would cheese me off, but actually it works, and both characters are completely sympathetic. He is a secret gem in the cast, which has a lot of good actors.
The stagework also surprises, the open square in the center flanked by the dressing tables, props, and costumes. Actors off-stage watch the proceedings as they unfold. This is the Seattle Rep, so large backdrops fall from the ceiling, as does a disco ball for the dance sequences., Yes, a disco ball. You just can't take this too seriously.
It can be rough going in the first fifteen minutes, dealing with cringe-worthy innuendos and puns that have no place in the stuffy renditions of Austen oeuvre. But once you accept the more frantic tone (and indeed, the Lovely Bride noted, this captured the chaos of a house full of women better than the novel itself), and the raw theatrical nature of it all, it rollicks. Oh my, how it rollicks.
So, the short version? If you're a purist who likes the most correct adaptation possible, stay far away. That is not what Ms. Hamill is serving up here. But as theater, as an adaptation from one media (from several hundred years back) to this one, it is definitely worth the afternoon.
I suppose I have to read the book, now.
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