Who knew that Jane Austen was the Neil Simon of the early 19th century!! Apparently Kate Hamill figured that out and went for the funnybone of social commentary in preparing her theatrical version of Austen's most popular novel, "Pride and Prejudice" now on stage at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont. In two and a half non-stop laugh-riot hours she has given her audience the opportunity to learn for themselves how insane a family could be even then. Like Simon she uses the most realistic of circumstances: a mother needing to marry off multiple daughters in order to assure herself a future in a nice home. She takes the usually comic mother figure, Mrs. Bennet, and expands her style of mania to her off-spring almost as a genetic inheritance. Mary, the youngest, is always a startling presence upsetting the others when she appears. Lydia is constantly flying into fantasies about her siblings. Lizzy is stubbornly disinterested in marriage and a future and Jane is romantically unable to get a man to propose. Their father is usually withdrawn, absorbed with studies and news, but still loving and curiously supportive of his daughters' independent natures. Somehow it all reminds me of every Neil Simon play I ever saw beginning with "Come Blow Your Horn."
Family dynamics abound in this play. So do cross-gender playing and multiple roles for most of the company. With the exception of the three motivating folk, Mrs. Bennet played by Joan Coombs, Lizzy played by Jessica Frey, and Mr. Darcy played by Dave Quay everyone else in the company of eight players take on multiple personalities, costumes, wigs and ways. Sometimes the changes are so drastic it is hard to comprehend who the actor is under hat, the gown, the veils; thank goodness there's a scorecard, or program, to help keep them straight. The gender confusion adds to the fun here and director Christopher V. Edwards uses it to good effect.
For example Carman Lacivita plays the youngest, least attractive Bennet girl in a pensive, petulant, piquant manner but is also Mr. Bingley, the handsome and aristocratic if awkward suitor of the eldest daughter, Jane. Late in the second act he needs to be both characters in the same scene and this is handled with a physical humor that is just as funny as any single line in the show. Ryan Quinn is the laothsome cousin, Mr. Collins who stands to inherit the Bennet's property (in England in the early 1800s women cannot inherit), and the untrustworthy Lieutenant Wickham who courts Lydia, and Miss Bingley who destroys Jane's romance. Quinn is wonderfully different role to role, smarmy to suave to bearded dragon-lady. Even the wonderfully warm Mr. Bennet of Omar Robinson undergoes a transformation to spinster neighbor Charlotte Lucas who interferes with the plans to marry off one or another daughter to Mr. Collins.
Krystel Lucas plays Jane with grace and beauty and charm, particularly in her scenes with Lizzy, but transforms later into the hideously awkward Miss De Bourgh grasping at Mr. Darcy and lunging at anyone who comes near him. Her Jane is the most sympathetic character in the play and her sorrow at not completing arrangements with Bingley before his departure to London is quite moving.
Dave Quay, Jessica Frey; photo: Joey Moro
Playwright Kate Hamill has made a madhouse out of the Bennet's world and it works wonderfully filling the stage with delicious portraits of classic romance novel characters. The frivolous, giggly, marginally attractive Lydia is transformed into the autocratic, aristocratic, monomanical and handsome Lady Catherine De Bourge by Ashling Pembroke who was so successful at metamorphosis that I actually didn't realize who was playing the second character. Throughout the show these changes are so perfectly realized that the comedy is enhanced through caricature.
Jessica Frey is a wonderful Lizzy Bennet. She is staunch and serious and straightforward with every line she utters. She is judgemental and strict about it. Her opinions are hard to alter and her opinion of Mr. Darcy takes a long time to shift into romance. Frey handles that alteration with the aplomb of a fine tailor; small invisible stitches hold the hem of her gown and the bodice of her true feelings with equal strength. When she ultimately finds herself not settling, but settling into a good romance it is wonderful to watch her face and her body move into a new, long-anticipated personality.
Her Darcy is played by Dave Quay in a manner that Laurence Olivier would approve of if he could watch one of his finest film roles become the object of laughter. This is not the laughter of derision, but of understanding the human foibles Darcy is experiencing. Quay is not the most romantic figure on the stage, but he is the most arresting. He has a fine voice and he moves well and when he dances with Lizzy you can almost feel the controlled lust welling up in him. He and Frey make a fine couple; you want them to fall in love.
As Mother Bennet Joan Coombs turns in a remarkable performance of a hateful character who is usually a comic figure among so many serious younger people. In this play she is the comic engine that drives her four daughters (the book has five daughters, by the way) through their exasperating turns at the game of love. She is at once loving, then conniving, then charming, then despicable but she is never NOT funny and never NOT endearing. It is the knot of her relationships with her family that binds her to their interests and her self-interests simultaneously. Coombs negotiates these comic twists with amazing grace and ease and when she has finally settled the hash of everyone except Mary she relaxes into a delicious demeanor that even delights her husband. I know this actress and I usually enjoy her work, but this time around I love what she has accomplished.
The very unusual set design by Alexander Woodward is wonderful to watch as it takes on as many personalities as the actors. Haydee Zelideth's costumes are pretty and functional and allow for the swift changes without even the modern footwear seeming out of place. Deb Sullivan's lighting was most effective, especially with the set changes and the sound design by Elisheba Ittoop worked most of the time, although now and then there was a lot of odd noise that made no sense.
One of the most effective qualities of this production was the period dances created by Alexandra Beller. They occasionally broke from tradition to become almost balletic battles for dominance between the men and women and, given the text of Austen's original book, this seemed remarkably appropriate.
As good as Hamill's script is, the bulk of the awarding here must go to Edwards for directing this comedy romance in such a clever, swift, well-timed fashion. High comedy is not easy and the laughter here emerges from high comic technique. I wasn't really sure at the outset that I was ready for a comic take on this book, but I will never stop giggling over the lines, their delivery and their effect on both audience and other characters on stage. Neil Simon would be delighted and jealous, I think, for none of his recent plays has possessed such insights into the comedy of the human race.
Pride and Prejudice runs at the Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, VT through August 25. For information and tickets go on line to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 802-867-2223, extention 101.