Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Jungle Theater has brightened the holiday season by bringing the splendid comedy Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley back after its successful 2017 run. The play, by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, picks up about two years after Austen's Pride and Prejudice left off. It offers the satisfaction of giving Mary, a Bennet sister kept in the background in Austen's original, her place in the sun, and introduces a wholly appealing new character. The playwrights go one better by placing it in the context of a family Christmas celebration, allowing for all the stress, anticipation, descent into old roles and pecking orders, and ultimately, affirmation of love for both family and the season.
Two years after the Bennet family saw their two oldest daughter Jane and Elizabeth marry well, and youngest daughter Lydia marry poorly at only 14 years of age, the family is gathering for Christmas at Elizabeth's new home, the Pemberley estate owned by her husband, the serious but forthright and kind Mr. Darcy. Joining them will be Mr. and Mrs. Bennet; Jane, who is great with child, and her husband Mr. Bingley, the most agreeable and jovial chap you are likely to ever meet; Lydia, without her husband, who is unwelcome at Pemberley; and sister Kitty, who has been staying in London with an uncle and aunt (this conveniently allows her to be left out of the play, which takes place the days leading up to the arrival of Kitty and her parents).
In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet is obsessed with marrying off four of her five daughters. After all, in 1811 a woman alone in the world is without any means of support or protection from the wickedness of society. However, the fifth daughter, Mary, is assumed to be unmarriageable. She is not lovely to the eye, lacks grace, is bookish, solitary, and prone to crankiness. Mary must count on the generosity of one of her sisters to take her in and shelter her from the cruel lot of a woman alone. She will never be a Mrs. Bingley or Mrs. Darcy, but forever Miss Bennet.
Only now, at the age of 20, Mary begins to openly show resentment about the presumption that, being unmarried, it will be her place to stay at home and care for Mr. and Mrs. Bennet when the time comes. No, Mary is not content with that at all. Married or not, she still wants a life and to see the world. This dilemma is confounded by the arrival of a distant relation of Mr. Darcy, Arthur de Bourgh, whom Darcy has invited to join them for Christmas. Against all odds, Arthur is as awkward, bookish, and adverse to society as Miss Bennet. It doesn't take long to figure out where this story wants to go, but getting to that end provides such a gently funny, warm-hearted, and cleverly plotted ride, we can only feel gratitude for being unseen guests invited to Pemberley to observe these delicious goings-on.
Adding to the entangled plotting is Lydia's misery over the unhappy state of her marriage, which she tries unsuccessfully to conceal, and the arrival of Anne de Bourgh who claims to be betrothed to Arthurwhich he himself knew nothing about. More peripheral are such merry touches as the shocked reactions of one and all to Elizabeth's introduction of a quaint German custom into their homea Christmas tree! The tone and tenor of humor liberally sprinkled through the play is witty, droll, and all in good tastewith stretches of farcical physical comedy as well.
In addition to a family Christmas gathering and the insurgent Christmas tree, the holiday spirit is served up by a pair of house servants who enter between scenes to make adjustments to the set for the scene to come, hanging a wreath here, a bower there, while singing lovely old songs of the season, sometimes accompanied by Mary's thumping pianoforte. This is a lovely touch that director Christina Baldwin added to the play. Recorded piano and harp provide lovely backgrounds to further nurture the feeling that Christmas is afoot.
Miss Bennet is entirely encased in good will. Even when characters behave badlywhich is particularly true of Lydia who, to mask her despair over her failing marriage, makes egregious overtures toward Arthur de Burghwe are meant to believe that at heart, all of them are good. And believe it we do. This is a testament to the warm and witty dialogue written by Gunderson and Melcon, the persuasive performances by the cast of ten, four of whom are returnees from the 2017 production, and director Christina Baldwin, also repeating her 2017 role. Baldwin serves the play well by keeping things moving at a brisk pace. Characters speak briskly, entrances come briskly upon exits, and scene changes are briskly accomplished, keeping energy pumped up. Baldwin fosters kindred feelings of warmth that accentuate the theme of family coming together, magnified by the joy of the holidays.
Christian Bardin, as Mary Bennet, at the start appears beyond hope. She moves as if a spring is wound tightly within her, tottering back and forth as she walks like a toy soldier. When Bardin's Mary realizes the happiness that has unimaginably come to her, she reveals in subtle turns of her mouth and brightening of her eyes, the first blush of love. As confidence in that feeling takes hold, she visibly radiates something she never before felt: hope. Reese Britts shines as the shy, unversed Arthur, who would rather be left alone in a library than join with society in friendships andgulplove. Like Mary, Britt's Arthur must accept the unexpected fact that something really good has entered his life, and he must summon the courage to seize it. The twoBardin and Brittsare blissfully well paired.
Sun Mee Chomet is a warmly loving Elizabeth, embracing all the possibilities of joysuch as her adoption of the Christmas tree. As a far merrier Elizabeth than the argumentative, strong-willed girl in Pride and Prejudice, Chomet fully captures her élan. Roshni Desai conveys Jane's supreme kindness and generosity, especially moving when she reaches out to offer Lydia a safe haven from her stormy life. James Rodriguez is a solemn Darcy who finds relief from the sobriety of life in his total adoration of his wife. As Bingley, Jesse LaVercombe continuously channels the positive energy of a man who has always seen the good in people, and one who will never let a fellow down.
Andrea San Miguel embodies Lydia's utter lack of decorum, perhaps going beyond what the part calls for. Lydia is meant to be man-crazy, but given the era and her breeding it is too much to believe her being as lascivious as this. When she gives up her seductress schtick, her character becomes far more appealing. Anna Hickey creates an appropriately obnoxious and snooty Anne De Bourgh, then achieves the tall order of making us feel, at the end, that she might be somewhat likeable after all. I did wonder about her accent, thoughexactly from where was Miss De Bourgh to have hailed? Jennifer LeDoux and Abilene Olson bring lovely voices to their roles as singing servants.
As we have come to expect at the Jungle, the set and costume designs, in this case both the work of Sarah Bahr, are extraordinary, with wigs well suited to the period designed by Robert Grier, all seen under the warmth of Marcus Dilliard's lighting design.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is a fan fiction dream for those who love Jane Austen, but you don't need to be familiar with Pride and Prejudice, or with Jane Austen at all, to have a grand time. There are real belly laughs, along with an abundance of gentle, affectionate humor, wrapped in a stunning holiday setting. It will delight and warm the hearts of anyone who appreciates the mayhem of family gatherings, the dreariness of considering a life absent of love, the good-hearted wishes of family to see one another happy, and the thrill of first love, wherever and whenever it may strike.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley runs through December 29, 2019, at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $45.00 - $55.00. Seniors (60+) and students with ID, $5.00 discount. Special Friday night discounts: patrons under age 30 and residents of zip code 55408, $25.00; high school and college students (with valid ID), $20.00. Rush tickets: unsold seats, if available, two hours before performance, $20.00 - $30.00. For tickets call 612-822-7073 or go to www.jungletheater.com.
Playwrights: Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon; Director: Christina Baldwin; Set and Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Designer: Sean Healey; Wig Design: Robert Grier; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Musicians (prerecorded): Lara Bolton fortepiano, Andrea Stern- Harp; Stage Manager and Properties: John Novak; Technical Director: Matthew Erkel; Production Manager: Matthew Earley.
Cast: Christian Bardin (Mary Bennet), Reese Britts (Arthur de Bourgh), Sun Mee Chomet (Elizabeth Darcy), Roshni Desai (Jane Bingley), Anna Hickey (Anne de Bourgh), Jesse LaVercombe (Charles Bingley), Jennifer LeDoux (Singer-Servant), Abilene Olson (Singer-Servant), James Rodriguez (Fitzwilliam Darcy), Andrea San Miguel (Lydia Wickham).