Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Pride and Prejudice
Beforehand (and before the improvisational skills of actress Michelle Hand emerged, unexpectedly), it was touch and go. Like RuPaul, issuing a drag challenge to his cross-dressing contestants on television, the woman sitting behind me said everything but "Don't f*** it up!" "If Mrs. Bennett isn't just right, I'll scream!" she insisted, or words to that effect. The frantic Mrs. Bennet famously treats her fivefour in this versionRegency-era daughters in Hertfordshire like kittens down a well, with marriage as the only possible means of escape.
But everyone is just right in this stage adaptation by Christopher Baker, and the audience seemed to fall in love with all two hours and fifty minutes of it. The Baker script hits nearly all the high points of the beloved 1995 TV miniseries by the BBC, although there's no pond at Pemberley for Mr. Darcy to dive into, just for a thrill. Nevertheless, Katie Kleiger is an excellent Elizabeth Bennet, bearing some resemblance to Jennifer Ehle from the BBC version; and Nick Rehberger is every inch Mr. Darcy, though with dark blond hair and a slightly more fearsome mien than Colin Firth (who actually did have dark blond hair before this iconic role came along). And, hopefully, this ends our direct comparisons right there.
The set by Scott Bradley is terribly nice, with romantic projections and video fragments by Alex Basco Koch splashed across it and an intriguing musical score by Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes. There was also an unplanned memorable moment opening night, when the left rear leg of the Bennets' couch snapped off, when tempestuous Mrs. Bennet (outstanding, but tiny, Michelle Hand) sat down in a very early scene. "Mr. Bennet, I seem to have broken the couch!" she said, after a tenth of a second's surprise. She soon wove the furniture collapse into her dread of Britain's "entailment" laws, in which families without sons would surrender all their property on the death of the patriarch (in this case, lovable rationalist Michael James Reed) to the nearest male heir. "The girls will be cast into poverty," she insists. And then the actress widened her wailing arms ever so slightly, to include that tilted couch as the final harbinger of their doom. The audience roared its approval. We were no longer listening to the romantic rosary prayer of a familiar story. It had become a living moment in theater.
And it also broke a lot of the tension, over the fear of ruining everyone's delicious memories of the TV and movies spawned by the novel, published in 1813. That damned couch should break every night. Stage manager Emilee Buchheit chose not to send out a soldier of the regiment with a stack of books to prop it up, though it lay there like a capsizing ship through all of act one. We gradually learned to ignore it, and any other interruption would have only broken the spell cast by this production. Ultimately, we avoided a different kind of "couch play," by the sheer power of story and stagecraft. It was also a tribute to Improv 101.
Mrs. Bennet is actually quite central to this version, but there's plenty of other great acting on stage, including lovely work by Rebecca Haden and Grayson DeJesus, as Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley; Jennie Greenberry, who is more subtle than expected, as Bingley's sister; with Stephen Michael Spencer as a just-right Mr. Wickham; and Blake Segal, in a lovely and original comic interpretation of the role of Mr. Collins, the sisters' awful cousin.
Lizan Mitchell is baronial and baroque as Lady Catherine De Bourgh, the woman most likely to wish you into a cornfield, with fine contributions from Rebecca Miller as Charlotte Lucas, and a half dozen of our favorite local actors, as well. Some characters, including Kitty Bennet, Georgiana Darcy, and Anne de Bourgh, have been lost in this translation to the stage (Kitty suffers the same fate in Christmas at Pemberley, recently presented at The Rep). But the show is ravishing, and clocks in at just under the three-hour mark, with minutes to spare.
Pride and Prejudice runs through December 29, 2019, at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Browning MainStage on the campus of Webster University, 110 Edgar Rd., St. Louis MO. For tickets and information visit www.repstl.org.
Cast (in speaking order):