There is much to be said for a version of Pride and Prejudice that elicits an audible and collective gasp of surprise from the audience when Lizzy Bennett (Simone Recasner) learns that her fourteen-year-old sister Lydia (Emma Mercier) has run off with the disreputable Mr. Wickham (Chris Richards). Surprise, at a plot point from a Jane Austen novel! Because I myself cannot even begin to compass the impoverishment of an existence ignorant of Austen’s work – and particularly of this, her most well-known and frequently “filmed” novel – I can only conclude that Kate Hamill’s adaptation for the stage is so adept and fresh that it utterly robs some audience members of their capacity to remember the original.
Indeed, Hamill is a perspicacious reader of Austen, and her translation of the text into a theatrical idiom offers a slew of surprises even for those audience members (guilty as charged!) who would be in a position to fill in lines of dialogue given too long a pause in the action. Take, for example, her choice to figure the amiable Mr. Bingley (Andrew William Smith), who “sees the best in everyone,” as an eager and easily distracted puppy dog; or her insight that the odious Mr. Collins (Chris Richards) is “the original Mansplainer”; or her inspiration to have both the supercilious Caroline Bingley and the ungainly and unmarriageably bookish Mary Bennett played by male actors (Richards and Smith, respectively). These character attributions function like the dash of salt on a gourmet chocolate chip cookie, enhancing the enjoyment of an already excellent and beloved confection by updating it for a modern palate.
But I do a disservice to both Ms. Austen and Ms. Hamill in referring to Pride and Prejudice as a confection. I know I need not remind you, dear sophisticated Reader, that the pleasure in reading Austen primarily derives not from her romantic plots – delectable as those film versions of her novels, with their wet-shirted heros, may be – but rather from her subersively ironic depiction of women’s limited options within a patriarchal social system. Hamill pulls that thread as well: for her Lizzy, the marriage market resembles nothing so much as a game, with “rules, strategies, wins, losses … theoretically, done for pleasure,” all arranged by overly anxious mamas on the basis of financial and social-climbing considerations. Lest we forget what, precisely, is for sale in this market, we see Mrs. Bennett (the gifted comic actress Elena Alexandratos) pump her girls up before each ball with a cheerleading-style chant: “Chest and bum and eyes and smiles/ Catch that man with female wiles!”
I trust you have surmised by this point that this is not your grandmother’s Pride and Prejudice. Anachronisms abound: while the easily donned and doffed costumes (by Christine Tshirgi) situate the characters in the Regency era – with Empire waists for the female characters and high-collared jackets for the males – the actors’ body language, the sound design, and many of the props are distinctly contemporary. Director Desdemona Chiang has devised playful and theatrically imaginative solutions to the staging challenges posed by the play, employing fully dressed mannequins to stand in for characters who must be on stage while their actor plays an alternate role, plastic spray water bottles to materialize hems dripping wet from rain, paper airplane letters to bring news from the outside world, an electronic door chime to announce a character’s arrival, and red Solo cups for the party scenes. Chiang’s direction also vividly fills in the details of Hamill’s modern take on Austen’s characters, offering fresh avenues of exploration into the family dynamics at the heart of Austen’s satire. For example, here not only is Lydia a mini-Mrs. Bennett, parroting her mother’s lack of decorum and boundaries, but she also becomes an unexpected object of our sympathy toward the end of the play, when she, and we, realize the true cost of her impetuous behavior. Likewise, the always nervous and excitable Mrs. Bennett is endowed with new depth in this version, as she finds inner strength to cope with a crisis that destabilizes the equilibrium of the normally staid Mr. Bennett (Ashton Heyl).
Scenes overlap and shift quickly, aided by the swift rearrangement of carefully curated pieces of furniture (a harpsichord, a chair, a table with a tea set), by precisely timed sound and lighting cues (by Masha Tsimring and Andre Pluess, respectively), and by the occasional intervention of the Public Theater’s black-clad stage manager. Scenographer Narelle Sissons has transformed the space into a ballroom as it might appear the day after a rather wild and festive party, with blue and pink streamers dangling from large chandeliers suspended throughout the theater, and chairs, articles of clothing, and cushions scattered and hung rather willy-nilly about the space. The comedy and “drama” mostly plays out on a central parquet floor, bordered on two sides by banks of audience seats, although at times scenes also play out in the audience itself, including on a large four-poster bed situated at the back of one audience bank (a perpetual visual reminder of the ultimate aim of the marriage game, perhaps?). The arrangement has the advantage of upending expectations from the very beginning, but it also renders the actors’ faces unreadable to a good chunk of the audience at any given point in the performance, which is a shame, because the ensemble conveys a good deal of the play’s comedy and wit through nonverbal reaction. I was grateful to be sitting on the “main” side of the audience, as it seemed we were afforded a more frequent view of the players’ front sides than their backs.
As Lizzy and Darcy, Recasner and Ryan Garbayo not only ratchet up the requisite romantic tension but also make palpable the excruciating awkwardness of courtship in a world in which one’s prospects and engagements are a fully public business. Ashley Bufkin brings grace and charm to the eldest and nicest sister Jane, and a daffy, horse-like laugh to her portrayal of the sickly and insipid Miss Anne De Bourgh. Mercier embodies Lydia with the wild abandon and energy of a young teen; her Lady Catherine De Bourgh is frighteningly both opposite and apposite. Alexandratos is marvelous as the anxious and overly zealous Mrs. Bennett; Smith is goofily eligible as the bachelor Mr. Bingley, and fully weird as the gloomy “Captain Bad Vibes” Mary Bennett; and Heyl brings a calm sensibility to her characterization of the two most rational figures in the story, Mr. Bennett and the very practical Charlotte Lucas. Rounding out the cast, Chris Richards is imperiously haughty as Miss Bingley, appallingly sly and seductive as the pedophiliac Mr. Wickham, and clearly having more fun than should be legal with his portrayal of the unbearable Rev. Collins.
When you make plans to entertain yourself with this captivating production – as I know you will, dear theater- and Austen-loving Reader – be sure to leave yourself enough time before the show to take in the Festival of Firsts’ light and sound installation Beyond / Playmodes, located just a couple of blocks east of the O’Reilly on Penn Avenue. Performances start every half hour on the half hour between 7 and 10 pm, last just five minutes, and are free (the Cultural Trust recommends tickets, but walk-ins seem both allowed and encouraged). It’s brief but unique; you may never have a chance to experience anything quite like it again.