Pride and Prejudice
A new stage adaptation of Jane Austen's novel gives the Bennet sisters a comic makeover.
Kate Hamill, a playwright and performer who had downtown audiences in stitches with her adaptation of Sense and Sensibility a couple of years ago, loves to lift the veil from the prim and proper image we associate with Jane Austen and her world. "Our ideas of Jane Austen are not super accurate," she said in a recent interview. "Remember, they had thriving prostitution and criminal underclasses then. They went to the bathroom in chamber pots. People got scurvy. They had fleas."
Hamill's latest take on Austen, a laugh-out-loud adaptation of Pride and Prejudice now running at the Cherry Lane Theatre, isn't super accurate either, as far as the novel is concerned anyway: One of the five Bennet sisters, "silly" Kitty, has been excised completely, and the play itself features cross-dressing actors and more anachronisms than a Mel Brooks movie. So those looking for a no-nonsense BBC-style adaptation will not find it here. Instead, Hamill and director Amanda Dehnert give Austen's novel a deliciously antic sensibility with a terrific eight-member cast who take on more than a dozen roles and look like they're having as much fun as the audience.
The story revolves around the four Bennet sisters who live in a decidedly middle-class home with their father (a delightfully aloof Chris Thorn) and matchmaking mother (a hysterically excitable Nance Williamson) whose life's work is to marry off her daughters: pretty Jane (given a suitably plain personality by Amelia Pedlow), marriage-averse Lizzy (a grimacing Hamill), flighty Lydia (a bright-eyed Kimberly Chatterjee), and bookish, possibly demented Mary (John Tufts in the show's single funniest performance).
When potential husbands come to town, the sisters find themselves entangled in the affections and intrigues of several suitors, including the simple-minded Mr. Bingley (Tufts again, channeling a hyperactive terrier), the dashing Mr. Wickham (a suave Mark Bedard, in one of three roles), and the proud Mr. Darcy (an austere yet comical Jason O'Connell). But when Jane is jilted, Lydia elopes, and Mary is locked in a closet, the family's fortunes are thrown into confusion as Lizzy tries to discover whether she loves Mr. Darcy and whether his pride really deserves the disdain of her prejudice.
The production's looniness begins with the cast ringing handheld chimes before breaking out into Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders' 1960s hit "The Game of Love" and elbowing one another with the snarls and side-eyes of jealous lovers. Sound designer Palmer Hefferan blasts several other chart-toppers throughout the play whenever there's a ball — featuring Ellenore Scott's bumping and grinding choreography — and gives Mr. Darcy his own entrance music (the Darth Vader theme).
While some of these jokey interludes are hit-and-miss, the antics mostly work because Dehnert and Hamill commit to the anachronistic tomfoolery throughout the show. But it's the actors, with their onstage playfulness and fourth-wall-breaking smiles to the audience, as well as to each other, who make the production a joy to watch. Along with Tufts's insanely funny portrayal of Mary (costume designer Tracy Christensen clothes the glowering Bennet daughter in a horrendous purple and black dress worthy of Wednesday Addams), Bedard performs a ridiculous bit of stage business with two chairs that sends the audience — and the cast — into fits of laughter.
Every self-respecting Janeite knows that Austen was a master of tongue-in-cheek social commentary. From time to time, Hamill touches on some of the novel's concerns, including marriage being a financial arrangement rather than a loving commitment, and women being a commodity to be utilized by wealthy, powerful men (an issue that resonates especially loudly these days). This Pride and Prejudice has comedy at its heart, but regarding the treatment of women, it shows us enough unsettling similarities between the 18th century and now to make us pause thoughtfully between laughs.