BWW Review: Witty & Wonderful MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY Charms at the Milwaukee Rep
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a..." - scrap that, fast forward. Welcome to Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a play set in the world of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, following Lizzie and Mr. Darcy's happy ending. With their romance confined to the pages of Austen's novel, the Darcys take a turn as supporting characters in this story that focuses on the Bennets' forgotten middle daughter, Mary.
For those unfamiliar with these characters, their backstory isn't terribly necessary to the plot of Christmas at Pemberley, though it would no doubt let you in on certain jabs and jokes. Playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon do a nice job of getting the audience up to speed: Lizzie and Darcy are happily married. Eldest sister Jane and Mr. Bingley are also in matrimonial - and pre-paternal - bliss. Younger sister Lydia is feigning happiness with husband George Wickham. And middle child Mary is resigned to remain a precise, bookish, facts-first and feelings-never spinster.
Being Austen-inspired and set at Christmas, one might guess that Mary's story is about to take a turn for the romantic. Enter Arthur de Bourgh, a distant relation to Mr. Darcy who is set to inherit a very large estate and just happens to also be spending the holiday at Pemberley. He shares Mary's fondness for science, world maps, and speaking literally. It's a no-brainer of a match.
In this Milwaukee Rep production, Rebecca Hurd as Mary and Jordan Brodess as Arthur bring the lion's share of amusement to the Quadracci Powerhouse. These two make such a funny and endearing match, their awkward interactions carried out with spot-on comedic timing and the sweet timidity of cautious impending romance.
Hurd conveys with aplomb everything from the brainy intricacies of the script to the heart-aching plight of an outsider longing for companionship and understanding. For Brodess, when he's not matching Hurd's intelligence and wit, he's leaving the audience in stitches over his hilarious physical comedy and the physiological effects of falling in love - "a rather uncomfortable feeling," Arthur says.
Seemingly never uncomfortable is Lydia, played to rambunctious, bombastic perfection by Netta Walker. This flirty, flighty schoolgirl of a character is meant come off as just obnoxious enough - a challenging line to walk without crossing into cringe-worthy annoyance. Walker hits the right note with Lydia, playing to all her signature silly qualities while maintaining her humanity.
Rounding out the Bennets are Jane (Sarai Rodriguez) and LIzzie (Margaret Ivey). Both ladies bring warmth and humor to their parts, as they step out of the spotlight of Pride and Prejudice and into supporting roles for middle sister Mary. It's a pleasant shift in dynamics and focus, while still giving fans of the original work a sort of "where are they now?" peek into the lives of these women. Pemberley is proof that Jane and Lizzie's stories do indeed extend beyond the thrill of courtship.
As delightful as it is to catch up with the eldest Bennets, it's the Darcy-Bingley bromance that's especially entertaining. Played by Yousof Sultani and Fred Geyer, respectively, these two gentlemen become wingmen for the love-clumsy Arthur, bestowing all their best-learned advice from their own days in romantic pursuit: mainly that, per the world of Pride and Prejudice, an orchestrated coupling isn't any less real.
One final casting shout-out must be paid to wrench-in-the-plan Anne de Bourgh, whose uptight, mechanical demeanor comes courtesy of Deanna Myers. She's high-and-mighty and pitiful all at once, and although intended to be a sort of circumstantial villain, Myers succeeds in showcasing Anne's complexities.
That's part of what's so refreshing about Christmas at Pemberley: It's made clear that each woman has been shaped by her own unique circumstances. Whether fate has dealt her beauty, a great fortune, an alluring disposition, or curiosity enough to question the norm, these women play to their strengths and do what they must to survive in a male-dominated society. We glimpse each woman's perspective and motivation, allowing for camaraderie and compassion, rather than cattiness.
As refreshing as Pemberley's many takeaways are on the roles and relationships of women in the era of Austen, equally fresh are its set, soundtrack, and movement choreography. The soundtrack features instrumental renditions of Top 40 tunes, from Gaga's "Bad Romance" to Britney's "Baby One More Time." Choreographed sequences - sometimes danced, sometimes staged in a series of artful vignettes - lend a sort of movie-montage whimsy.
The first time such a montage happened was, admittedly, a bit off-putting when one considers the source material and vibe of traditional Austenian period pieces. However, it didn't take much coaxing to hop on board with these artistic choices and appreciate what the showrunners are going for.
The overall design of the show is one that marries early 1800s sensibilities and contemporary style: jewel-toned costumes, bright yellow and hot pink accent furniture, and rainbow bookshelves like something lifted from a lifestyle blog. It's a fun kind of refinement, and the color play between the set, props, and Mieka van der Ploeg's costumes is, quite simply, very pretty. Shout out to Scenic Designer Courtney O'Neill for creating a covetable Pemberley.
And let's not forget that most signature element of holiday décor: a towering spruce. A Christmas tree is quite the novelty at Pemberley, as this is the first year Lizzie has attempted to introduce the newfangled indoor-tree tradition. Such holiday elements keep the story seasonal, and although the themes aren't confined to winter or Christmas, it's interesting to reflect on - and challenge, as Mary Bennet does - who our families expect us to be, both at the holidays and all year through. If Christmas at Pemberley sends audiences home with one heart-warming moral, let it be this: to find your happy ending, you must be true yourself.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow