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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

New Adaptation of Pride and Prejudice
at Shakespeare Theatre:
The Question is "Why?"

Also see Bob's review of Leader of the Pack

Pride and Prejudice
Victoria Mack and Marcus Dean Fuller
Here we are back in early 19th century England for a new stage adaptation of Jane Austin's wildly popular romantic romp cum social class structure satire, Pride and Prejudice. We are again in Hertfordshire with Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of the lower gentry, and their five unmarried daughters. The news that Mr. Bingley, a young and wealthy unmarried gentlemen from London, is taking a house nearby sends the Bennet manse into a tizzy because the pushy and airheaded Mrs. Bennet is determined to promote a match between Bingley and her eldest and prettiest daughter Jane. Bingley is accompanied by another bachelor, his best friend Mr. Darcy. When Darcy becomes enamored of the lovely Jane, Darcy becomes determined to save Bingley from making the foolish mistake of marrying a simple country girl below his social class. Second oldest Bennet daughter, the feisty Elizabeth, hearing of Darcy's disdain for the locals (and a false tale of his chicanery), develops a hostility toward him which, after many tribulations and witty, hostile encounters, inevitably leads to mutual admiration and true love.

Such a barebones description of Austin's novel necessarily fails to include the months long series of romantic complications and rich array of subsidiary characters which make the novel such a delight. Nearly all are present in director Bonnie J. Monte's adaptation currently on stage at the New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre. However, they are presented in an endless series of short scenes which do not so much dramatize the novel as lay it out schematically.

It is my recollection that I counted in the area of fifty scenes in her adaptation. While it seems hardly possible, I would not be surprised to learn that there were as many as 61 scenes (one for each chapter in the novel). As any given scene has equal weight with any of the others, and minor characters too often push the central players off stage, there is no dramatic arc to the proceedings. The adaptation is so concerned with duplicating the structure and details of the novel that there is not enough playing time to define each character in more than the simplest, most rudimentary strokes. Throughout its three hour and 15 minute running time, a viewer becomes increasingly enervated because of the flat landscape of the adaptation.

Monte might have effectively shaped the novel for the stage by encapsulating the escapades of the two sets of lovers and relevant members of their circle into no more than a half dozen or so scenes. Austin's satiric, light romance with its non-stop series of witty scenes set in a limited number of residential locations is not suitable to Monte's sprawling scene after scene stage adaptation. Such adaptations have proven more efficacious for the novels of Charles Dickens, whose melodrama and scope provide the basis for directorial pyrotechnics.

A large and talented cast has been assembled by Monte, and all acquit themselves well. The problem is that the structure does not permit any of them to develop their characters organically and engage our interest. The exceptional Victoria Mack plays Elizabeth, the fiery and intelligent heroine, in fine style. It is the nature of the adaptation rather than any weakness in her performance that prevents her from winning our hearts as any Elizabeth must do if Pride and Prejudice is to truly engage us. Nisi Sturgis (Jane) and Sean Mahan (Bingley) perform most agreeably, but in this adaptation their roles are lacking in theatrical impact. Marcus Dean Fuller (Darcy) is stiff and halting.

Edmond Genest brings a entertaining bemused geniality to Mr. Bennet, and Monique Fowler is mildly amusing as Mrs. Bennet. This is because their roles only require the broad strokes in which they are drawn. There is a rich and extended gallery of entertaining characters from the novel who are paraded on stage. These roles are well played albeit underdeveloped. Still, in terms of dramatic structure, they consume too much of the running time. As has happened in the past here, there are occasions when it appears as if the delivery of the dialogue has been speeded up to accommodate it all and get us home a tad more quickly.

Director Bonnie J. Monte is repeatedly defeated by adaptor Bonnie J. Monte and her perpetually changing scenes. Most annoying is the repetitive "March of the Furniture." Here I refer to the between scene moving of chairs, tables and stools in full view of the audience by the overworked actors as they redress the set.

Pride and Prejudice is enacted on a circular stage. Michael Schweikardt's scenery features two arched backdrops and curtains, which are shifted about the rear of the stage to represent rooms in each of the homes in which most of the story unfolds. The outdoors is represented by a gold framed, full rear wall sized painted background which resembles a delicate Japanese watercolor. The appropriate costumes are by Kim Gill.

There was a well received screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley which opened in theatres within the last year. In 1995, the BBC produced an exceptional, and exceptionally faithful, 5 hour mini-series of the novel with Jennifer Ehle which is generally regarded as the definitive screen version. It is breathtakingly beautiful in every way. A flatfooted, reductive scene by scene transfer of the novel to the stage, it is difficult to see any artistic reason for this stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. A viewer would be much better served watching the mini series DVD. Better yet, re-read the novel.

Pride and Prejudice continues performances (Tues. 7:30 p.m./ Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m./ Sat.-Sun. 2 p.m./ Sun. 7 p.m.) through November 19, 2006 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600. online www.shakespeareNJ.org.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin; adapted and directed by Bonnie J. Monte

Cast:
Mr. Bennet…………………………Edmond Genest
Mrs. Bennet……………………….Monique Fowler
Elizabeth……………………………..Victoria Mack
Kitty/Lucy, A Maid………………….Katelin Wilcox
Jane……………………………………….Nisi Sturgis
Mary……………………………………Saluda Camp
Lydia………………………………….Gardner Reed
Lady Lucas/Mrs. Reynolds…………….Hanna Hayes
Sir William Lucas…………………...Ashton Crosby
Mr. Bingly……………………………….Sean Mahan
Miss Bingly…………………...Alison Ostergaard
Mrs. Hurst/Miss De Bourgh…….Megan Irene Davis
Mr. Hurst/Capt. Denny………………...Paul Reisman
Mr. Darcy……………………Marcus Dean Fuller
Charlotte Lucas………………....Jessica Ires Morris
Maria Lucas/Georgiana Darcy..Elizabeth G. Wilson
Harriet Long/Dorrie, A Maid……………Kersti Bryan
Col. Foster/Servant………………………...Phil Brown
Col. Fitzwilliam/Gentleman………...Josh Carpenter
Mr. Blake/Servant…………………….Jake O'connor
Servant/Ensemble…………………Michael Striano
Mr. Collins……………...Michael Stewart Allen
Mr. Wickham………...David Andrew Macdonald
Lady Catherine De Bourgh……Elizabeth Shepherd
Mrs. Gardiner/Hill…..Kathleen Rosamind Kelly
Mr. Gardiner……………………………Joseph Costa


Photo: © Gerry Goodstein


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- Bob Rendell



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