"Miss Bennet" is a sequel to Austen's timeless classic "Pride and Prejudice".

By: Dec. 14, 2022
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There is something vexing and indefinable about the Victorian era that really lends itself to being associated with Christmas. Maybe it's the grand estates, or the hoop skirts, or the elaborately-decorated manors, but the stories and characters of Jane Austen really come to life when set against a snowy backdrop and a towering Christmas tree. Such is the case with "Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley", the 2016 play by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon currently playing at Blackfriars Theatre, which also happened to be one of the most produced plays in America in 2018.

"Miss Bennet" is a sequel to Austen's timeless classic "Pride and Prejudice", though you won't miss a beat if you haven't read or seen it; or, if you're like me, not since high school English class, anyway. "Miss Bennet" is set two years after the novel ends and continues the story, this time with bookish middle-sister Mary (Campbell McDade Clay) as the unlikely heroine. Mary is growing tired of her role as the dutiful middle sister to Lydia (Fiona Criddle), Jane (Kit Prelewitz), and Elizabeth (Jess Ruby) in the midst of everyone else's romantic escapades. When the family gathers for Christmas at Pemberley, an unexpected guest sparks Mary's hopes for independence, an intellectual match, and possibly even love!

Plays that center on family dynamics are usually rife with interesting and exciting characters that demand a lot of the actors, and "Miss Bennet" is no exception. Notable standouts include Carl De Buono, whose Fitzwilliam Darcy has the air of aristocracy but with a dry British humor and impeccable comedic timing; Criddle's Lydia, who is bouncy and animated but also cutting and, well, just a *LOT* to deal with; and Philip Detrick's Arthur De Bourgh, who is awkward and a bit frantic, but tender and sincere when the moment calls for it.

As a self-proclaimed Austen agnostic I still found myself thoroughly enjoying "Miss Bennett", despite the somewhat sluggish pace of its first 15-20 minutes. Yes, certain components of the story toe the line of soap opera and yes, it's all a bit silly, BUT, Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon infuse the story with the perfect amount of thought-provoking thematic material, providing all the period drama that Austen fanatics love but also highlighting the oppressive social constructs of the time. Gunderson and Melcon put a spotlight on the Victorian notion of a woman's diminishing value when she ages and remains unmarried; the commoditization of women, especially in high society; the intersection of feminism and social class; and agency and free will. I've long said that the best theatre is the kind that makes you think without realizing it because you're too busy being entertained, and that's exactly what "Miss Bennett" does; provides laughter and joy in the moment, while also imparting meatier themes to wrestle with later. It's a specialty of Lauren Gunderson, who for my money is one of our most interesting and exciting playwrights living today.

Blackfriars' production of "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley" is the perfect way to infuse some Austenian class, laughter and merriment into the holiday season. It's playing until December 31st, for tickets and more information click here.


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