‘Pride and Prejudice’ Gets A Gender-Bending Contemporary Twist

 

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Cast of Actor’s Shakespeare Project’s ‘Pride & Prejudice. PHOTO CREDIT NILE SCOTT STUDIOS

 

Reviewed by Shelley A. Sackett

Jane Austen, the 19th century author of ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Mansfield Park’ and ‘Emma’ did not hide the ball. Marriage in sexist Regency England is the central theme of all her novels, which she penned under the pseudonym “A Lady.” The laws of coverture, which governed marriage, stripped a wife of all her legal and economic rights, essentially making her a ward of her husband. In the absence of brothers, her family’s fortune would pass to her husband upon her father’s death.

Ironically, a young girl’s sole raison d’être was to secure such a union of legal indentured servitude.

And that is just the predicament the four Bennett daughters are in. Spearheaded by Mrs. Bennett, their storm trooper mother (played beautifully, but for the sometimes screeching exuberance, by Mara Sidmore), the four Bennett sisters are on a crusade: to find a rich husband who will save the family from destitution following the death of Mr. Bennet, whose estate will pass by law to his cousin, the slithery Mr. Collins (more about him later).

 

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ASP Pride and Prejudice – Doug Lockwood, Mr. Collins; Zoe Laiz, Jane; Anna Bortnick, Lydia; Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, Lizzy; Louis Reyes McWilliams, Mary

 

The set (designed by Alexander Woodward) works beautifully to evoke 19th century grand drawing-room country life. The three moving panels with doors provide ample opportunities for entrances, exits and that old standby favorite, slamming doors.

 

The audience meets Mr. Bennet (played by Gabriel Kuttner in a standout performance), the anchor to the Bennett women who copes with his wife’s frenzy over marrying off their daughters by ignoring it. He is the one calm touchstone throughout the production, providing wry relief when Mrs. Bennet threatens to hurl us all over the edge.

 

She approaches prepping her daughters for a ball, where her recon has revealed there will be several eligible bachelors, as she would conduct paramilitary drills. Some of the play’s best lines (“We couldn’t be more poised for a victory,” she tells her husband) and some of the best- choreographed scenes are these preliminary family drills.

 

Each daughter, in turn, approaches the idea of marriage differently. Lizzy (played with solemnness and heart by Lydia Barnett-Mulligan) wants no part of it, either because she refuses to play the game or because she is afraid of making a bad choice. Jane (Zoë Laiz) is aware of both her biological ticking clock and her responsibility as the eldest. Lydia (played with tremendous physical and verbal comedy by a scene-stealing Anna Bortnick, who is equally as impressive in her role as Miss de Bourgh) is 14-years-old and in it for the sport. Mary (Louis Reyes McWilliams, who inexplicably plays her as part Nana-the-dog (from Peter Pan), part Lurch and part omniscient Greek chorus) rounds out the family female tree.

 

The rest of the play follows these four as they bounce from one romantic crisis to the next. As the level of desperation rises (“This is not a game,” Mrs. Bennet warns), even marriage to Mr. Bennet’s distant cousin Mr. Collins, who will inherit the Bennet estate, is considered.

 

As played by Doug Lockwood (and dressed by Costume Designer Haydee Zelideth), Collins is all menace and creepiness, his constantly moving hands itching to reach out and snatch the nearest female flesh within his reach. Lockwood plays the part brilliantly, with gusto and credibility. His is one of the few over-the-top performances that blends seamlessly into the rest of the play.

 

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(Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, Lizzy; Omar Robinson, Darcy

 

Although marriage to Collins would be fine by Mrs. Bennett, the girls put their foot down and so the family future is even more imperiled. Lizzy eventually meets her match in Mr. Darcy (played with gravitas by Omar Robinson), Jane finds love with Mr. Bingley, and Lydia arguably gets whom she deserves. Since Mary’s eligibility for marriage is questionable, Mrs. Bennet can at last rest and Mr. Bennet can get some well-deserved peace and quiet.

 

Many of the actors play multiple roles, including some gender-bending ones. Garbriel Kuttner transforms his girth and baldness into a believable Charlotte Lucas (Lizzy’s best friend who makes the disastrous decision to marry Collins) and Doug Lockwood is brings great physicality to Miss Bingley. Since Mary, as directed, is of questionable species, the fact that she is played by Louis Reyes McWilliams is less noticeable.

 

Under Christopher V. Edwards’ direction, feminist playwright Kate Hamill’s brilliant female-centric adaptation takes on a slightly screwball character that is hit-and-miss. Although Hamill deliberately wrote the play as a farce, some of the slapstick and sight gags work, and some land like a lead balloon. By the end of two and a half hours, most of the freshness has faded.

 

That said, the acting is overall outstanding and the production is light-heated and fun. Hamill’s script is full of incisive and cutting quips, tacitly alluding to the similarities between the 19th and 21st centuries. “The heroines of Austen’s novels are often struggling with how to reconcile the dictates of their consciences with the demands of their society,” Hamill said. “And I think many of us identify with that.” Judging from the laughter and applause at Wednesday’s show, Hamill’s mission was accomplished.

 

For tickets and information, go to: https://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org/plays-events/pride-and-prejudice/

‘Pride and Prejudice’ –Written by Kate Hamill; Adapted from the novel by Jane Austen; Directed by Christopher V. Edwards; Choreography by Alexandra Beller; Sound Design by Ian Scot; Lighting Design by Deb Sullivan. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project, Balch Arena Theater, 40 Talbot Ave., Medford, through June 29.

 

 

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