Like Jane Austen’s novel, the new, inventive adaptation of Pride and Prejudice from playwright Daniel Elihu Kramer begins with same opening line. Apart from anything written by Dickens, it’s possibly one of the most famous opening lines in English literature. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
In Southwest Shakespeare Company’s creatively witty and hugely entertaining production of the 1813 Austen classic, now performing at Mesa Arts Center until April 8, each member of the cast, all five of them, contribute either a word or a repeated portion of that sentence in a way that neatly captures the essence of everything to follow. Ask any student of Austen and they’ll tell you, that single sentence, with it’s jaunty, practically chipper rhythm, may reveal society’s preoccupation with marriages for the single, wealthy man, but it can also indicate something somewhat problematic for the single woman. In nineteenth century England, the issue of a socially advantageous marriage was often limited, with dire consequences for a happy future if never fulfilled. In other words, for some society ladies of the day, it was the best of times, for others, the worst.
Playwright Kramer has deconstructed Austen’s book and presented it as a play rife with questions to be answered, theories to be discussed, on-line blogs to be written, plus asides, movie quotes and even a word or two from Jane Austen herself in the form of letters written to either her older sister Cassandra or her niece, Fanny. It’s like watching a newly prepared Annotated Pride and Prejudice for the Twenty-First Century Reader. When a character mentions that Mr. Bingley has been called away to town, an actor will briskly sprint across from stage left to stage right letting us know that the town in question is London.
Austen’s novel is left largely intact. As with any stage adaptation, it’s a fragmented account, but the overall feel is one of a satisfactory re-telling that incorporates all key elements of familiar dialog and famous scenes. The five players listed as Actress A, B and C (Alison Campbell, Katie Hart and Breona Conrad) and Actor A and B (Kyle Sorrell and Cale Pascual) perform all characters from the sprawling novel and literally tell the story. When Mr. Darcy (Kyle Sorrell) sees Elizabeth Bennet (Alison Campbell) across the room, Sorrell both performs and narrates, “When she caught his eye, he withdrew his gaze.” And later, “Elizabeth attracted Darcy more than he liked.”
With a keen, inventive approach, director Kent Burnham allows his actors to drop the faux, somewhat clipped and genteel English period accents as each performer stops the action, which regularly occurs, steps out of character and asks of the audience in an American voice, to whom was Jane Austen engaged, or how many Bennet daughters are there in the novel? On stage we can only see two at the most, but as the cast check on their mobiles and engage in discussion, the answer is, of course, five. There are other breaks and comical asides along the way.
When a scene has Darcy meet up with Elizabeth at a later moment, the action is stopped and the scene briefly re-enacted in the form of movie-quotes, one from the Greer Garson 1940 film, one from the Colin Firth 1995 BBC TV mini-series (which is technically not a movie-quote, but that’s just nitpicking) and one from the Kiera Knightly 2005 remake. Bridget Jones’ Diary and the one with the zombies are never mentioned.
There’s also fun visual invention, as when Jane (Katie Hart) visits the Bingleys at Netherfield, their rented house, and journeys alone on horseback through the wooded countryside during a thunderstorm, complete with rattling leaves held on branches by the cast and backed by Lindsey Longcor’s thunderous sound, and dark, crackling lighting, a moment made even funnier with the inclusion of a stuffed deer’s head observing the scene.
What’s particularly notable is how good the five-member cast are with all of of their individual characters. Both Sorrell and Campbell would look completely at home as Darcy and Elizabeth in a regular, straight version of the play. Plus, there’s playful humor in seeing Sorrell return to the stage in the character of the pompous Reverend Collins. With glasses at the end of his nose, the slightest of lisps, his hair lightly tousled, and his hands clasped forever together before him – not as obsequious as Uriah Heep, but just as irksome – Sorrell’s clergyman with his overstated sense of humility remains every bit as comedic in this production as he does in Austen’s novel.
Ultimately, during the final twenty minutes, the play feels longer than it should. As the story draws to its conclusion, rounding up all the character subplots while having Elizabeth’s prejudice of first impressions and Darcy’s haughty pride overcome, the story is so wonderfully engaging on its own terms that breaking the fourth wall for additional asides of trivia makes things less entertaining, while those asides become more interruptive. The hawking of a souvenir mug quoting Darcy’s opening lines to his marriage proposal isn’t as funny as it might sound, and the running joke of London being the town that characters continually quote becomes less amusing with every mention.
But like wondering whether a line from a TV production technically qualifies as a movie-quote, for some audiences, those above-mentioned reservations may seem like nitpicking in a production that continually amuses throughout. There’s always pleasure to be had watching the moment when witnessing Mr. Bennet’s viewpoint as he comments on his daughter’s refusal of Rev. Collins’ advances, or of enjoying Katie Hart’s portrayal of the excitable and silly Lydia. There’s also something comforting when noticing the warm delight in Alison Campbell’s smile as she introduces another brief moment with the author herself, Jane Austen (Hart). Plus, like the book, the play’s conclusion can’t help but be one of great satisfaction. As playwright Kramer has his characters tell us in advance of the intermission, unlike modern novelists, Jane Austen wasn’t afraid of happy endings.
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Pictures courtesy of Patrick Walsh