BWW Feature: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE at Virginia Stage Company - Love in Surrealness
We long for other worlds. For all our individual reasons, which are varied and true, we long to experience the elsewhere. Be it movies, books, tv, theatre, dance, or museums, we welcomingly fall into other places. These places can provide opposition or solidarity, but always stir empathy within. They may be wholly different or strikingly similar to our own worlds but we are never alone in these places to which we have escaped. We become invested in characters and viscerally respond to their triumphs and failures. By the very essence of the human psyche, we see ourselves in these stories regardless of place or status and Virginia Stage Company's recent production of Jane Austen's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is proof of that.
The works of Austen survive because she held the key to the most evident human truth of all. We love love. We spend our lives in search of it. It is wild and most certainly unpredictable. As years go by, we find ways to make sense of the ridiculous, almost impossible way of finding it. Maddeningly out of our realm of control, we still love love. It is of which fairy tales are made. There is no escape from it's relentless presence so we succumb, we fall, and we dissolve into the surreality of it all.
In this production of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, directed by Virginia Stage's Producing Artistic Director Tom Quaintance, the script by Joseph Henreddy and J.R. Sullivan weaves Elizabeth seamlessly through the complete, almost unabridged occurrences leading her to Mr. Darcy. This is Regency Interstellar, for we are in a reality created by Elizabeth. As if somewhere in another time, an elder Elizabeth was asked 'How did you and Mr. Darcy come to be?' With that question her memory sets in motion the most wonderful remembrance of life in Hertfordshire and the exact day that a young man of large fortune from the north, Mr. Bingley, moved into Netherfield bringing Mr. Darcy into her life. From the first action on stage we are sealed in this Elizabeth head space to experience all the little fine and delicious bits that conspire to the final awaited moment. The quintessential symbol of love. The kiss.
Christopher Tulysewski's set design on which these events unfold is wonderfully abstract. While a proscenium is a metaphorical and physical frame within a theatre, this set is literally framed. A gilded gold border runs along the edges of a seemingly simple two story brick wall that serves as both interior and exterior settings. Ivy extends up the brick and when looking through the top windows we get a glimpse of the purest blue sky and clouds. Appropriately reminiscent of Magritte, painter of the impossible. Bottom floor doorways open unassisted and peek into wainscoting hallways that lead to all locations. All doors lead all ways. As Elizabeth, Marina Shay pivots effortlessly through them on a whim of thought. She leads us through scenes, from dance to ball, from first sight to first slight, taking us through every key moment of her courtship with Darcy, played with depth and reservation by Lowell Byers. Each memory a portrait with moving parts.
While Elizabeth is our guide, we learn that we are not completely confined by her. Two brief encounters occur without her presence. Both between Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins. The two characters who represent the most exaggerated notions for women of the period. They represent societal opinions of woman as wife that Elizabeth has no control over.
An overbearing but loving mother, expertly played by Julie Fishell, who wants her daughters married to anyone and a pompous man of the church, played by the ever expandable Julian Stetkevych, who merely needs a wife and anyone will mostly suffice.
We are presented a world that is effectively undefinable beyond the reaches of what is required for each scene. Moments are served sparingly yet are saturated with intention. Throughout the performance each window and doorway becomes a frame within a frame. A portrait inception. From second story windows actors portray their portrait selves to the first floor grand room. A tedious dinner with Mr. Collins is executed by tableaus, humorous snapshots of increasing exhaustion and annoyance. An awkward interaction between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy frames the undoubted engagement of Jane and Mr. Bingley, played earnestly by Rachel Lyn Hobbs and Edwin Castillo (alt. Ja'Quan Jones). Ball scenes placed meticulously by Quaintance that bring to mind Volkhart. These are snapshots of reality presented in a surreal plane. Magritte once said of his cloud paintings "[they are but] visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, 'What does that mean?'. It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable." The play is boundless beyond the shadows and our imagination can put ourselves there, free from our place or status. It is all just enough and much more.
We are allowed to fall into this world. This love story is all of us. We cannot contain ourselves when Jane and Mr. Bingley are blessed by Mr. Bennet, who's inimitable love of his daughters is portrayed so effortlessly by John Cauthen.
We get misty at the final dance between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. We are free to leave behind what notions we individually determined PRIDE AND PREJUDICE should be and accept what is presented. We find that it matters not that a pianoforte magically slides into place or that doors auto open. A story so engagingly staged we are remiss that characters are of different races or skin tones. The implausibility matters not because this world does not exist to one construct alone. Lyn Gardner of The Stage UK wrote recently "We often talk in the theatre about the suspension of disbelief, but actually what happens during a great show is that belief is expanded. It is alchemy." Escaping into a theatrical performance is an impressive experience. In modern times it is a gift to sit within a fully invested and responsive audience. When it happens, it truly is magic.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE runs through February 4 at The Wells Theatre, Norfolk, VA
For full cast/production list please see vastage.org
Photo Credit: Samuel Flint