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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Guthrie stages an enchanting, if somewhat overplayed, Pride and Prejudice

Clad in the black spats, leggings and frock coat of an English country curate, the obsequious Mr. Collins minces over to beautiful Elizabeth Bennett, maneuvers his bulbous frame onto a low stool and, before he commences with what he believes to be an irresistible proposal of marriage, he carefully draws one strand of thin hair across his bald pate. It's a delicious moment, deliciously played by the inimitable Richard Iglewski in the Guthrie Theater's charming, well-cast and funny period comedy, Pride and Prejudice.

Director Joe Dowling loads James Maxwell and Alan Stanford's stage adaptation of Jane Austen's novel with playful moments of humor that come unexpectedly and are delightful. When vain Mr. Wickham makes an entrance, he pauses, swings back his white satin-lined lieutenant's cape, and a "ta-rah" flourish of violins sounds. When the highly eligible Mr. Bingley calls unexpectedly upon Jane Bennet, the family freezes mid-action and watches the pair expectantly, in timing perfectly calibrated to draw laughter.

It's a pity, then, that Dowling does not resist overplaying for easy laughs. One thoroughly over-the-top character in the form of Iglewski's fey reverend is wonderful; two more gets close to being too much.

Dowling has Sally Wingert as twitty Mrs. Bennet and Barbara Bryne as redoubtable Lady Catherine De Bourgh push their characters into overblown stereotypes. Both actresses are natural comics; they do find the laughs with their physical antics, but their roles would be funnier if they were toned down to allow Jane Austen's witty, character-defining dialogue full play.

Pride and Prejudice casts a quietly critical eye at class, manners and the dependence of 19th century women on contracting a "good" marriage in order to function in society. The play dips into the lives of the Bennet family in rural Hertfordshire. Mr. Bennet is a gentleman who married beneath his class, and his inheritance is entailed away to the nearest male heir. This presents a dilemma for Bennet and his wife - how to marry off their five dowerless daughters to suitable men with suitable incomes. When likeable Mr. Bingley, a bachelor of 4,000 a year, leases a neighboring estate and brings his even more well-heeled but imperious friend Mr. Darcy with him, Mrs. Bennet springs into fluttery action. Attractions germinate, but they are fraught with the complications of class and inadequate means.

Pride and Prejudice Bianca Amato as Elizabeth Bennet

Dowling's casting is spot on. Bianca Amato (who was first-rate in the recent Guthrie Lab's Top Girls) plays spirited Elizabeth, a beautiful 19 year-old and an independent thinker. Amato wears her character's persona as though it were her own. In another outstanding performance, Ray Birk captures Mr. Bennet's ironic wit and curmudgeonly tolerance of his all-female household.

I found myself responding to Mathew Greer's insufferably proud Mr. Darcy rather like Elizabeth Bennet; he is a cut-out poseur of man. But, as circumstances soften the character, Greer succeeds in warming Darcy into a person.

The cast is strong throughout. Cheyenne Casebier plays pretty and passive Jane Bennet, Lee Mark Nelson pleases as Bingley, Bard Goodrich finds Wickham's shallowness and Jennifer Blagan's Miss Caroline Bingley is all manipulation and hauteur.

In deft staging, set designer John Lee Beatty's backdrop of an English hunting scene is pierced with three arches that open and close for multiple scene changes. In the Assembly Room Ball scene, the two side arches allow glimpses deep into the candle-lit dancing room, and when the action moves briefly to Pemberly, Mr. Darcy's great estate, the arches rise to give a perspective of grandeur. A large turntable swings simple sets into view, each defined by its furniture, and Kenneth Posner's painterly lighting recreates soft English sunlight, dappling through huge, estate trees.

Mathew LeFebvre completes Pride and Prejudice's lovely visual tableaus with his pretty sprigged muslin dresses in Regency style for the young women, more elaborate gowns for the older women, attractive soldiers' uniforms and elegant clothes for the men.

This Pride and Prejudice might have succumbed to some overplaying, but it's an out and out crowd-pleaser and delightful summer fare for all the family.

Pride and Prejudice July 26 - August 30. Tuesdays - Saturdays 7:30 p.m., Sundays, 7:00 p.m. Matinees on selected Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays 1:00 p.m. $13 - $48. Guthrie Theater, 725, Vineland Place, Minneapolis. 612-377-2224. www.guthrietheater.org.


Photo: Michal Daniel



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Elizabeth Weir



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