Saturday, November 9, 2013

Pride and Prejudice at Lakewood

Austen translation 

by Kaitlin & Michael Dresdner

Foreground: Jacob Tice (left) as Mr. Darcy, Tony Onorati (right) as Mr. Bingley      photo by Kate Paterno-Lick

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a novel adapted for the stage will, of necessity, be different than the original. Compacting a literary masterpiece like Pride and Prejudice into a two-and-a-half hour production requires adjustments, which is to be expected. If you are a fan of the 2005 movie version of this literary classic (the one with Keira Knightly,) but thought it needed more comic relief, you’ll probably love the Lakewood Playhouse treatment of Pride and Prejudice. However, if you are a die-hard fan of the original Jane Austen classic, you may be less than amused.

The play revolves around the Bennets, who have five daughters and no sons. Thanks to primogeniture, a distasteful male cousin will inherit their home once their father dies. That encourages their well-intentioned but vulgar mother to drill into her daughters, and anyone else within earshot, the importance of marrying into money and position.

The eldest, Jane, who is beautiful, modest, and so reserved of emotion and speech as to be often misunderstood, falls for wealthy Mr. Bingley, though that pairing is beset by obstacles from his family and the ever-present class imperative of never marrying below one’s station. (To quote a very different movie, where a chauffeur’s daughter falls for the wealthy family scion, “No one poor was ever called democratic for marrying someone rich.”)

The second, equally beautiful daughter, and the true protagonist of the play, is the intelligent, strong-willed Elizabeth. She is at first offended and repelled by ultra-wealthy, aloof, prideful Mr. Darcy, but gradually comes to see him in a very different light as the truth about him slowly trickles in.

The remaining characters fill out the broad palette of this societal tableau. The other daughters range from severely bookish and reticent Mary to unabashedly coquettish and ebullient Lydia. Relatives and acquaintances run the gamut from the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the duplicitous Mr. Wickham to the thoroughly genial Gardiners. It’s a long play (easily two and a half hours,) with an abundance of mimed piano playing and real dancing, but it does eventually wind its way to a generally happy conclusion.

Rules of etiquette of the day made it almost impossible for people to speak frankly with one another, so there’s plenty of room for misunderstanding, privately nursed disappointments, and misguided reactions. That’s a large part of what creates the tension and frustration that drives both this genre and this story.

This version by Hanreddy and Sullivan, and directed by Casi Wilkerson, is substantially different than the original book. At times it seemed as if the story got the Disney treatment, where sour characters, like Mr. Bennet, are made more pleasant and likable, and distasteful archetypes, like Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins, become brassy, comic stereotypes. The vulgarization also extends to the language, which bounces back and forth between classical Victorian English, directly from the novel, and more modern phrases, often mid-sentence.

Steve Tarry’s well-executed Mr. Bennet was indeed more likable than his book persona. Both Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson as Mrs. Bennet and Paul Richter as Mr. Collins kept the audience laughing out loud with their antic portrayals, and Annie Coleman’s Caroline Bingley almost out-sneered Cruella DeVille. Mind you, these are adaptation and direction choices, and like them or not, they don’t imply poor acting. Still, I doubt Jane Austen would recognize them as her own creations.

Other cast members stayed, in varying degrees, closer to the originals. The leads, Jacob Tice (Mr. Darcy) and Rachael Boyer (Elizabeth Bennet) were both excellent, though their direction had them revealing rather more overt emotion than early 19th century societal mores would have allowed. Some actors, including Tony Onorati as Mr. Bingley, Elena Easley as Jane Bennet, and Christa Knikerbocker as “plain” sister Mary Bennet, managed, in spite of what was going on around them, to turn in excellent portrayals that were also entirely true to their origins. They were a welcome anchor to the original literature and stood out by not standing out. The remainder of the fairly large cast was mostly appropriate and more than decent, providing a reasonable and stable platform for the leads. 

There was no set to speak of, and the sum total of furniture and props consisted almost entirely of a table, a tray, and a mismatched set of chairs. (One wag at intermission insisted there was no scenery because it had all been chewed.) Everything, from the oft-played piano to teacups and letters, was mimed. Even clothing got into the act. In one notable scene, Elizabeth reads a from an imaginary piece of paper and then mimes slipping it into a non-existent pocket on her costume. 

The many major locations and settings in the story were also left to our imagination, abetted by lighting changes (Niclas R. Olsen), rearranged furniture, and the dialog itself. While the minimalism of the scenic design worked well for the space, it may leave those unfamiliar with the story a little puzzled about where they find the characters in a given scene.

Costumes (Frances Rankos), a challenge to be sure, were mostly impressive with occasional gusts of anachronism. If you keep your eyes centered and avoid looking too closely at the hats and shoes, you’ll be fine. Music, consisting largely of necessary piano playing, fitted nicely and was well chosen.   

I’m sure that for many, this is a delightful indulgence; a chance to wallow in the genteel world of the Regency era without wading through the occasionally tedious novel. Pride and Prejudice is perhaps the standard bearer of what Oscar Wilde sneeringly called “the three volume novel,” and like all classics, is something everyone should experience, perhaps more than once. With its upbeat pacing and overt humor, this may be just the version you’d most like indulging in.

Pride and Prejudice
Nov. 8th through Dec. 1st 2013
Lakewood Playhouse

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