BWW Review: Fortune favors the bold in Kate Hamill's PRIDE & PREJUDICE
Earlier this season, director Kim Tobin-Lehl proved herself a master of comedy, adept at navigating the treacherous waters of dark humor with her critically acclaimed production of Stephen Adly Guirgis's JESUS HOPPED THE 'A' TRAIN at 4th Wall Theatre Company, where she is also co-Artistic Director with her husband, Philip Lehl. She puts those same skills to work in her production of Kate Hamill's adaptation of Jane Austen's PRIDE & PREJUDICE, as you'll see below in my belated review of the production. And if the past is any indicator of the future, soon she'll be three-for-three, because she's slated to direct 4th Wall's first show of the new year, RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN, by playwright Gina Gionfriddo, a comedy in which "four women representing three generations dive into a freewheeling conversation about how women's lives have and have not changed since the 1970s," says The New York Times. To undertake such a play in this highly charged social and political environment -- well, you can't say the company or the director shies away from a challenge.
What can I say about the 4th Wall production of Kate Hamill's PRIDE & PREJUDICE? I dig it.
Scene transitions turned into dance breaks featuring Beyonce's "Single Ladies" (song and choreography) or bubble blowing and Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance."
Women wear fascinators, which I'll always have a fondness for thanks to the church hats The Sisters strutted around in during Sunday service when I was a kid.
It was clever. Director Kim Tobin-Lehl substituted a bodice for a door, a candelabra for a woman (being played by a man), and a bust for a man (being played by a bust). She executed live-action slow motion and, more impressively, fast-forward.
Ryan McGettigan re-created the home of an 1800s well-to-do home British family in a black box, using paintings. Lighting design by Christina Giannelli as well as sound design by Robert Meek and Yezminne Zepeda was so good that I never had to stop and wonder whether or not the lighting and the sound were working for me.
The acting and casting were superb. PRIDE & PREJUDICE is packed with strong performers that give strong performances and, naturally, the ladies led the pack. This is a Jane Austen story and the women's roles are the juiciest.
When together, Lizzy Bennet (Amy Mire), Jane Bennet (Leslie Lenert), Lydia Bennet (Rachael Logue), Marry Bennet (Philip Hays) and Mrs. Bennet (Courtney Lomelo), the characters that collectively make up the Bennet ladies, bore a great resemblance to a gaggle of hens. It was a brave choice for Tobin-Lehl artistically and politically.
Take for example Mrs. Bennet, played by Courtney Lomelo. Had Tobin-Lehl encouraged Lomelo to give an overly serious performance in an attempt to avoid propagating the gender stereotyping that very much hurts women in our daily lives, the character would have been both white bread and unleavened. Had the director dialed Lomelo's performance too high, she would have given the audience tinnitus.
Her choice works in both ways. The group scenes were hilarious, full of warmth and energy. At the conclusion of just one of the balls in the play, Lydia, the youngest Bennet sister, is slushed; Lizzy is covered in punch; and Jane, far from plain, has nabbed the male prize. Tobin-Lehl honored the original and reinforced Jane Austen's ever timely message: Women, even the ones who seem silly to us (or Lizzy), have interesting stories that deserve to be told.
Where I would have loved more boldness is in the portrayal of Lizzy Bennet. It is a flexible character. The popular 1995 PRIDE AND PREJUDICE TV mini-series depicted a self-possessed Elizabeth Bennet. The 2001 BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY showed a frazzled, bumbling interpretation of the same character. And Amy Mire portrayed a stuttering and stammering version of Lizzy Bennet. All three make valid choices, and I enjoyed all three performances. But my preference will always be a Lizzy Bennet with a strong air of superiority, one whose pride and prejudice matches Mr. Darcy's.
The men of PRIDE & PREJUDICE weren't left out in the rain. Philip Lehl, delivered some of the best lines of the play--"Have consumption or be done with it!"--as Mr. Bennet. Tobin-Lehl and costume designer Paige A. Wilson turned Justin Doran into the lovechild of Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth. Doran played the brooding, mysterious man plagued by Asperger syndrome, a man that, apparently, we loved in 1813 just as much as we do now.
And Philip Hayes, Jeff McMorrough, and Philip Lehl all got the opportunity to play women which, in a time where we put our gender pronouns in our email signatures, is a meaningful act. I won't pretend to be knowledgeable enough to make a determination about what is and isn't appropriate but, for me, it all comes down to trust. When the audience laughs at Mary Bennet, played by Hayes, who is meant to be unattractive, do you trust that they are laughing at the costuming and hair and not (by proxy) a person who does not match masculine or feminine gender roles?
I can say that the blood-curdling scream that followed whenever a character looked at Mary was, arguably, the funniest gag in a very funny play; that Jeff McMorrough did play the role of the beautiful Miss Bingley (as well as the odious cousin Mr. Collins); Philip Lehl gave a wonderful performance, touching and funny, in his role as Charlotte Lucas; and that Hamill is known for exploring gender roles, going so far as to create gender neutral roles for PRIDE & PREJUDICE.
Hamill's version of the Jane Austen story is absurd and surreal, but the beloved characters and story are still there. Mr. Darcy is still priggish. Elizabeth Bennett is still the idea you have of yourself in your head. Mrs. Bennet is hysterical while Mr. Bennet is wry. George Wickham is a dashing cad in a redcoat. And really, the golden retriever has always been Charles Bingley's spirit animal. Hammill's adaptation just makes it more literal.
4th Wall Theatre Company's production of "Pride and Prejudice" ran November 29 through December 22, 2018 at Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street.