Kate Hamill and Jason O'Connell photos by James Leynse
by Julia Polinsky
It’s easy to go back and forth between liking Primary Stages’
production of Kate Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice and absolutely loathing it. If
you can take or leave the Austen novel, you may like this show better than if
you are academically minded. In the book-to-stage transition, some stuff will
be left out and some wholly changed. Accept that premise, and you can enjoy
transformation of Austen’s work into post-postmodern screwball
Where an academic may be annoyed by this kind of cavalier
treatment of good books, the theater junkie can get an enormous kick out of
what damn good theater it all is. Hamill and director Amanda Dehnert, working
with scenic designer John McDermott and Tracy Christensen’s inspired costume
designs, toss and mix and mesh and edit and create something vividly theater-y
out of a 200+ year old novel of manners.
If you’re up for silliness, you’ll get it. If you want the
spectacle of watching people play the game of love (yes, you’ll hear that
song), it’s in there. Pared to its essence, and maybe a bit beyond that, the
story moves right along, at the frenetic pace of farce.
In many ways, Hamill does a great job of re-shaping the novel’s
storyline to fit the constraints of one stage, 8 actors, and two and a half
hours. For one thing, 8 people play 14 characters, with cross-dressing costume
changes, energetic movement around the stage, and some terrific acting making
that possible. Only Nance Williamson as Mrs. Bennett, Jason O’Connell as Mr.
Darcy, and Kate Hamill as Lizzy remain themselves always; all the other actors
do double or triple duty as Pride and Prejudice’s cast of characters.
Hamill paints those characters with broad strokes, and the cast
steps up with gusto. Bingley (John Tufts) comes off as Darcy’s not too bright
dog; Eliza’s sister Mary (also John Tufts, in a perfectly awful/awfully perfect
dress) reads as a nerdy, awkward, scary goth girl; characters shriek when they
Chris Thorn, Kate
Hamill, Amelia Pedlow, and Mark Bedard
One standout performance comes from Mark Bedard -- or should I say
three performances? He was simply hilarious as Mr. Collins, Miss Bingley, and
Mr. Wickham, with a real presence and a gift for physical comedy. The chair bit
alone, a charming chunk of stage business, steals the show.
“Hilarious” may not be the first word that comes to mind when you
think of Pride
but Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice is all high comedy, no
high thought. Alter the costumes to what we wear today, and you actually would
have a sitcom, with so many sound cues, they nearly become a laugh track. For
instance, not only do bells literally go off when boy meets girl – the cast
uses tonechimes at the moment the Bingley and Jane (Amelia Pedlow) meet -- but
Darcy and Lizzy meet cute to the Darth Vader theme from Star Wars.
Boy meets girl exceedingly cute, in fact; at a ball, Lizzy spills
hot punch on Darcy. Not just on him, but on his upper thighs. Near the center
of his body. (OK, on his crotch.) Boy and girl meet; they snark; they fall in
love; boy gets girl; girl bests boy in a light saber duel to the tune of the
Star Wars score. Played for laughs? Absolutely. Gets laughs? You bet.
To change the intricacy of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the
subtlety of its portraits, the complexity of its treatment of a fairly banal
subject, to broad comedy with silly songs from the 60s and a light saber duel
between Eliza and Darcy? Feh. If that’s your taste, so be it.
In a program note, the author says she’s trying to create a
complex female character, and also to surprise audiences by creating a true
piece of “…highly theatrical theater, not just a retread of the novel.” In
that, she succeeds.
and Prejudice by
The Cherry Lane Theatre
NY, NY 10014
January 6: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday 8pm; Saturday,
December 3 and 10: 3pm;
December 13, add matinee performances Wednesday at 2;
performance January 1, 8pm