Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The story, set in EnglandHampshire, specificallyin the early 1800s, deals with the necessity of women at that place and time, requiring either a husband or an inheritance in order to be secure in the world. A woman who must earn her own way in one of few vocations available to her was a risk of destitution and disrepute. Marrying for love is all well and good, but rather a luxury for many women of that age. And yet Jane Austen, through her champion, Lizzy Bennet, suggests that to marry only based on necessity is to give up one's claim on the right to happiness.
The staging of this production sets it apart from any association we may have with the mannered gentility of English literature. As we enter the theater, we are greeted not by early nineteenth century quadrilles, but by contemporary rock music, with the raw voices of yearning hearts. More such music bridges the scene changes. Set designer Annie Katsura Rollins has stripped the stage bare. The proscenium arch is gone, revealing the full height of the stage from floor to ceiling. No rear curtain conceals the wall at the back of the stage.
In plain sight in the wings are divans, writing tables, window frames and other furnishings waiting for their turn on stage, and actors awaiting their next entrance, sometimes changing costumes to take on a different character, as several actors are double or triple cast. Sometimes this means men playing women's roles and women playing men's roles, in itself a way of suggesting that the strictures that kept man and woman locked in rigid roles 200 years agoheck, even 20 years agoare falling away.
The stage floor is painted black and in the center is the white outline of a large rectangle, whichwith the help of lighting (by Karin Olsen) and bells (sound design by Dan Dukich)creates the effect of a boxing ring where the ends of scenes are akin to the end of a round between fiery romantic Lizzy Bennet and staid but punchy Mr. Darcy.
The lead-up to this match: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have five daughters and a modest livelihood with nothing in the way of inheritance to pass down. Most outspoken of the lot is Lizzy Bennet, at 20, the second to oldest daughter. Lizzy deflects her mother's desperate efforts to find husbands for her and her older sister Jane and is averse to marrying anyone unless it is for love. Jane Bennet, at age 22, is the kindest and prettiest young woman in the county, but reticent to express her feelings, even when she falls head over heels with well-to-do Mr. Bingley at first sight.
Mr. Bingley's friend, Mr. Darcy, catches Lizzy's eyethough not in a favorable way. Darcy is even better off than Bingleya fact that sets Mrs. Bennet to swooningbut he appears to Lizzy as haughty, looking down his nose at country folk like the Bennets, who he states are obviously inferior. In the course of Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy is pursued by a boorish clergyman, Mr. Carter, and a suave Lieutenant, Mr. Wickham, but her path continues to cross with Darcy's, allowing repeated occasions for them to verbally spar and proclaim their disdain for one another.
Middle sister Mary is the family's black sheep, as it is assumed she will never marry. She is too plain of looks, too bookish, to cross, too awkward and too independent for any man to abide. Next is Kitty, 17 years old in the novel but completely absent from Hamill's stage adaptation, which leaves the youngest, Lydia. Lydia, age 15, is the boldest of the girls, breaking boundaries of decorum and relishing any form of attention, especially from men. Her lack of discipline puts her in a very compromised position reflecting both her poor choices and the intolerance of the society they inhabited.
Director Lisa Channer keeps the show moving merrily through the first act, but into the second act while the merriment continues, the high stakes of the match become striking. Not only Lizzy and Darcy, but all of these young men and woman are reared by centuries of tradition to have their eyes on one prize: security. For the women, this means to be well supported and avoid shame or scandal; for the men, to maintain or enlarge whatever social status and wealth they have obtained by virtue of a suitable match. Lizzy's challenge to these "rules of the game" may strike us today as a baby step forward, but when Jane Austen created Lizzy Bennet the strength and spirit of her character was revolutionary.
The cast in this production is superb. China Brickey is glorious as Lizzy Bennet, whether sternly chastising Mr. Darcy, deflecting her mother's rants, consoling tender-hearted Jane, or admitting to herself that love has snuck its way into her heart. Every emotion, every nuance, is played beautifully. Her antagonist throughout most of the play, Mr. Darcy, is given a striking performance by Paul Rutledge. Rutledge has the handsome visage and grace to be a most desirable Darcy. He conveys an outward crust that is natural to Darcy's class, as well as the principled goodness and humility at his core.
George Keller is at the top of her game, hilarious as obsessive Mrs. Bennet, struggling to control her daughters' futures, as when she pointlessly coaches Mary toward drawing interest from the men at a ball. Beneath her foolishness, though she knows what the stakes are, and when she screams "This is not a game" at a reversal, Keller reveals the deep-rooted fear held by a woman of her time. Alex Gallick is sweetly passive as Mr. Bennet, managing to avoid the fray while holding on to his daughter's affections. As Lizzy's friend Charlotte, Gallick conveys a woman's resignation to a deck that is stacked against her.
Neal Beckman is delightful as Mr. Bigley, guilelessly displaying positive feelings about everything and everyone. Beckman switches costumes to play Mary, laying out the darkness of a young woman, not even 20 years old, who is already resigned to a life without cheer. Sara Richardson conveys Jane's sweetness as well as the timidity which is her only flaw, and brings fierce imperiousness to her portrayal of Lady Catherine, who bloodlessly wields the power afforded by wealth. A scene in which both Lady Catherine and Jane are present requires Richardson to prove her marvelous knack for quick changes. Kiara Jackson brings the right blend of impulsive energy, precociousness, and poor judgment as Lydia, while McKenna Kelly-Eiding does fine work as Mr. Collins, Mr. Wickham, and Mr. Bingley's sister.
All of the above actors give spirited performances that coalesce as an ensemble, creating a sense of unity that permeates the production. In addition, they are all dressed in Sonya Berlovitz's first rate costumes, each creating a signature presence for the character beneath the cloth. And kudos to vocal coach Ruth Coughlin-Lencowski for the consistently right accents with which the actors give voice to Jane Austen's words.
If I had it to do over, I would have seen Pride and Prejudice at Park Square first, and Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley at the Jungle second, but either way, both are well worth seeing. Pride and Prejudice, of course, gives a newbie to the Jane Austen universe the foundation story. This is a highly energized production that ties the serious core of the play and Austen's concerns for the women of her era to our own era. Miss Bennet is decked out for Christmas, so builds on holiday good will, and offers an inventive counterpoint to the original story. The production is quickly paced, its comedy played broadly with a large dose of silly business, but in the end the show reaches our hearts
But don't make me choose. Both of these plays are very, very good, their productions first rate, showcasing superb actors. Both are worth your theatergoing time this holiday season.
Pride and Prejudice runs through December 22, 2019, at Park Square Theatre, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 70.00; under 30 discount tickets, $21.00; students and educators, $16.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military, $10.00 discount. Rush tickets, $20.00 one hour before each performance, subject to availability. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or visit parksquaretheatre.org.
Playwright: Kate Hamill, adopted from the novel by Jane Austen; Director: Lisa Channer; Set Design: Annie Katsura Rollins; Costume Design: Sonya Berlovitz; Lighting Design: Karin Olsen; Sound Design: Dan Dukich; Properties Design: Josephine Everett; Vocal Coach: Ruth Coughlin-Lencowski; Choreography: Scott Edward Stafford; Dramaturg: Tim Komatsu; Advance Stage Manager: Rachel Rhoades; Production Stage Manager: Megan Fae Dougherty; Assistant Stage Manager: Jaya Robillard;
Cast: Neal Beckman (Mr. Bingley/Mary Bennet/Miss De Bourgh), China Brickey (Lizzy Bennet), Alex Galick (Charlotte Lucas/Mr. Bennet), Kiara Jackson (Lydia Bennet), George Keller (Mrs. Bennet), McKenna Kelly-Eiding ( (Miss Bingley/Mr. Collins/Mr. Wickham), Sara Richardson (Jane Bennet/Lady Catherine), Paul Rutledge (Mr. Darcy).