BWW Reviews: South Coast Rep Revisits 'PRIDE & PREJUDICE'

Arguably one of the most beloved novels of all time, Jane Austen's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE has so consistently resonated with readers since its first publication in 1813 that it has spawned a plethora of dramatic adaptations on several different mediums. Continuing the trend is South Coast Repertory, now running an enjoyable new stage production continuing through October 9. This brisk yet faithful stage adaptation conceived by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan has been revived with a new revisionist addition: to reiterate the story's timeless quality and its modern-day relatable themes, director Kyle Donnelly imagines the story coming to life before the eyes of a young teenager reading Austen's classic on paperback (only because her e-Reader malfunctions).

While the inclusion of a punk-rocking teen gleefully pouring over the pages of this lit hit feels somewhat like a pummel-you-over-the-head way to remind the audience of the novel's continued relevance in today's pop culture, I found it quite  interesting, actually. Her facial expressions speaks volumes about the joy one must feel experiencing this great work of literature for the first (or umpteenth) time. Claire Kaplan—who plays the mute teenager who inserts herself as a giddy fly on the wall inside the world of Regency-period England—observes the action more like a super-fan and is only minimally intrusive to the story at hand.

At the heart of the narrative, of course, is steadfast, free-thinking Elizabeth Bennet (Dana Green), one of Austen's significantly headstrong heroines with a penchant for thinking beyond the confinement and rules of her surrounding society in Netherfield Park. Apparently, she "gives her opinions much too easily," a rather peculiar quality for the time. A forward-thinker in antiquated surroundings, the witty and relatively level-headed Elizabeth must contend with issues of class, marriage, manners, and morality, while navigating her place as the second of five sisters and dealing with a set of parents hell-bent on marrying each daughter off to a wealthy suitor.

She soon meets the aloof but intriguing Mr. Darcy (Corey Brill), a tall man blessed with handsome good looks and incredible wealth. A contrast to his friendlier, more approachable visiting companion Mr. Bingley (Brian Hostenske), Mr. Darcy seems to act like he's above it all, as if visiting this less opulent town was the most bothersome of activities for such a refined, socially-elevated gentleman. Not making the best first impression, Mr. Darcy's demeanor quickly sours him to Elizabeth. It didn't help that she overhears him disparaging Elizabeth. Essentially, his pride causes her prejudice against him. (Get it?)

As Elizabeth gets further ensconced in family drama—her sisters (Rebecca Lawrence, Katie Willert, Elizabeth Nolan, Amalia Fite) and parents (Randy Oglesby and Jane Carr) provide much hilarity, contrast, and chaos—she also repeatedly gets second-hand information from acquaintances that paints a very unlikable picture of Mr. Darcy, further justifying her dislike of the man. But Mr. Darcy is clearly smitten with Elizabeth, professing his attraction despite all of the hearsay against him—which he's more than happy to debunk.

A charming romance embedded with wit, intelligence and unexpected humor, this stage version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE effectively compacts Austen's rich novel and brings its memorable characters to life with a modern-day, observational eye. Thus watching the novel unfold alongside "the girl" feels slightly voyeuristic, as if we're watching high society on-the-scene video footage from early 19th-Century England.

The scene transitions using computerized video projections hammer home this very idea. I wonder, then, why the teen girl's digital e-Reader (I couldn't tell whether it was a Kindle, a Nook, an iPad, or some random tablet) "broke" at the start of the play. Wouldn't it have made more sense that the only way she would even read the novel is to get it in a digital format, which would explain the digital-ness of the play's backgrounds?

And, yet, despite the choice of using beautiful but impersonal digital projections to aid in the swift pacing of the show, these flat "sets" made the play feel less opulent than previous productions—my only real gripe about the show. Gone are the rich details that architecture and actual furniture may have afforded the setting. Gone too is any sense of naturalistic dimension. This era, frankly, begs for the kind of lavish, period-acurrate set pieces that SCR does so well. While the projections don't render the whole play ineffective, I do admit... I miss those tangible objects here. Luckily, Paloma H. Young's gorgeous, billowing costumes helped breathe life into the staging.

But as an overall stage work, this stage adaptation gets it mostly right—from smart line readings to the casting of its terrific ensemble. Green is absolutely beguiling as Elizabeth, providing a pitch-perfect rendering that would make Ms. Austen very proud. Her dashing Mr. Darcy, embodied by the charming Brill, is also quite excellent. Scene-stealing turns by Carr (the only true Brit in the entire cast!) as the Bennet matriarch, and the memorable Scott Drummond as the humorously petulant Mr. Collins add much needed fun to the drama. Oglesby also does some fine work as Mr. Bennet. And each great actress playing a Bennet daughter also triumphs in the play, each portraying a unique personality that bursts through appropriately.

While SCR's high tech production of this period drama is indeed quite a fine production, it could have used, well, less tinkering. I appreciated the thought that went into the slight nuances that have been added to make it more palatable to a modern audience... but, really, the source material is great on its own. Almost two centuries' worth of fans can't be wrong.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq

Photos, from top to bottom: Dana Green & Corey Brill by Henry DiRocco; Green & Brill by Ben Horak; Katie Willert, Claire Kaplan, Green and Michael A. Newcomer by Ben Horak; The Bennet sisters break into song by Ben Horak.

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Performances of Jane Austen's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE continue at South Coast Repertory through October 9. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday nights, with matinees starting at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

A Post-show discussion occurs Tuesday, Sept.  27. Discuss the play with members of the cast following the performance. (Free with purchase of admission to a performance)

Tickets, priced from $20 to $68, can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

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From This Author Michael L. Quintos

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