Review: Pride and Prejudice by Kate Hamill. Based on the novel by Jane Austen. Produced by Seattle Repertory Theatre. Directed by Amanda Dehnert. Choreography by Ellenore Scott. Scenic Design by John McDermott. Costume Design by Tracy Christensen. Lighting Design by Robert J. Aguilar. Sound Design by Matt Starritt. With Kjerstine Anderson, Kenajuan Bentley, Cheyenne Casebier, Emily Chisholm, Trick Danneker, Hana Lass, Brandon O’Neill, Rajeev Varma. Now through October 29, 2017 at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
Austenphiles take their “Jane” very seriously. The early 19th century British author only wrote 6 beloved novels but they’ve been read and re-read and adapted into every kind of media available to humans. There’s an entire department at the BBC in charge of refilming the books every 10 years or so. The Austen Novels have had more reboots than Spiderman and Peter Pan combined.
But, while some fans enjoy deviations from the standard Austen Rom Com film/TV series/stage adaptation, many are less forgiving. The spoofy horror parody “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies” was a modest hit in print but a bomb on film. British mystery novelist P.D. James penned a mystery sequel to “P&P”…2011’s “Death Comes To Pemberley” that had some success as book and miniseries. And, conversely, of course there’s Helen Fielding’s hugely popular “Bridget Jones’s Diary” that used themes from Austen and it was a monster hit both as a series of books and films.
Austen has been done on stage many times as well including locally here in Seattle. Book-It Rep has done more than one stage adaptation of an Austen novel and Taproot just debuted a new musical adaptation of “Persuasion” that was a hit this summer.
Which brings us to the current Austen on an area stage, Seattle Rep’s currently running version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE adapted recently by actress/writer Kate Hamill who has made a success with her adaptations of several 19th century novels including another Austen work, “Sense and Sensibility” and Thackery’s “Vanity Fair”. “P&P” is actually a West Coast premiere; the play’s world premiere was just this summer at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival directed by noted director Amanda Dehnert who also directs the Seattle Rep production but with a new mostly local cast (and, choreography/costumes and sets recreated from the Hudson Valley Shakes production).
And, I’ll admit I was dreading yet another “faithful” version of an Austen classic, especially THE Austen Classic, her most well known work and the one most adapted. Did I need to see yet another “P&P” and another retelling of the complicated fractious wooing between the prideful Elizabeth Bennett and the handsomely disapproving Mr. Darcy with Mother Bennett creating maternal havoc and Lydia running amuck with Wickham while poor Charlotte gets stuck with the obsequiously awful Mr. Collins, and so on and so on. Haven’t we seen it all before so very many times?
Well, we have but we’ve never really seen it done with such great humor and cleverly silly stagings as this delightful new adaptation of a brilliant but very, very familiar old plot. Ms Hamill has miraculously freshened up the story by wryly applying the lightest contemporary sensibilities to the proceedings. The story is still very much set in Regency England circa 1813 or so but these versions of the Bennetts seem to be living in a Bizarro Britain where Papa Bennett is always off trying to read The Stranger and one of the many dances featured in the story includes a disco ball and some very contemporary dance moves. Yet, Ms Hamill is also VERY faithful to the plot of Austen’s novel. It’s pretty much all there, with every major character and plot complication present in this production’s slightly long 2 and a half hour running time. She cut one of the five Bennett sisters (poor dumb Kitty isn’t really missed) but that’s about it.
And, this “modern” approach, which is very theatrical and includes 6 of the 8 actors playing multiple characters and transforming themselves onstage in front of make up mirrors, will not be to all tastes. We’ve already heard of a few rumblings from purists that this tartly rambunctious take on the material isn’t appreciated by everyone. And, to be fair, not all the bits and pieces of broad comedy work and a few running gags run out of steam. But, this vaguely Monty Python-esque hit and miss approach of rapid gags is part of the charm of this production and both Ms Hamill’s script and Ms Dehnert’s direction are clever enough to roll with the punches. For every awkward gag that doesn’t work so well there are 5 that land on comedy gold…and, those are good stats for any comedic undertaking.
The very very funny cast (who mostly are all onstage at all times) seems keen to outdo each other in their hijinks…it’s like the cast of the old Carol Burnett Show trying to break each other up. As usual, the actress playing Mrs. Bennett steals many of her scenes, and Cheyenne Casebier is no exception. But, in this high spirited production she has comedy competition from Rajeev Varma as Mr. Bennett who also very coquettishly plays the plain Charlotte who captured the odious Mr. Collins, the eventual heir to the Bennett’s home.
And, as Mr. Collins and the dastardly Wickham and the snobby Miss Bingley, Brandon O’Neill does pretty much run away with the show with three VERY broad and VERY funny performances, in a major tour de force for the actor probably best known as a dashing leading man in big musicals at the 5th Avenue. Mr. O’Neill seems to be very much enjoying his holiday away from Gilbert & Sullivan and Rodgers & Hammerstein as he surprises us with his deliciously over the top comedy chops. He’s a joy to watch.
The rest of the cast is equally as divine with very funny work from Emily Chisholm (as Jane Bennett/a very dim Miss deBurgh), Hana Lass (the bratty Lydia/the Dragon Lady de Burgh) and Trick Danneker (homely sister Mary/doofy Mr. Bingley). And, you might notice that the men do all play female roles at times to great effect…but, we’ll ding this adaptation/production for overdoing the “Mary is homely and played by a man in a dress!” schtick which wears out its welcome after the 32nd double take.
As for the leads, Kjerstine Anderson as the smartly proud Elizabeth and Kenajuan Bentley as the haughty Darcy they both suffer a bit from the misfortune of having to be the “straight” characters surrounded by all the zanies played by the other 6 actors. The pair only play the one role for each of them so they have fewer opportunities to display comedic range. “Lizzy” and Darcy do have to be more grounded than the rest of the characters but they’re also not quite as interesting either which is problematic as they are supposed to be the center of the story; when they come on to do their scenes, you keep impatiently waiting for them to “wrap it up” so the story can bring in someone funnier. Ms Anderson and Mr. Bentley are both compelling performers here but neither of them seem as comfortable with the comedy as the other actors. It’s one of those odd situations where you’re not sure if it’s the writing, the directing or the performances at fault…or, a combo of all three. You enjoy them, but…you enjoy the supporting cast so much more.
All that said, this Pride and Prejudice is a fantastically silly romp that still manages to be very faithful to Jane Austen’s beloved novel. The sharp wit of much of the script and the direction combined with some hilarious comedy performances can make for a very enjoyable night of theater. I haven’t had this much fun at a stage comedy in months. Much recommended…
Unless you hate funny Jane Austen with disco balls and Python-esque silly humor.