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Review: OU's School of Drama brings Delightful Holiday Cheer with MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is a lovely tribute to the works of Jane Austen. It features the beloved characters of Pride and Prejudice in a new holiday story.

Review: OU's School of Drama brings Delightful Holiday Cheer with MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY

Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon's 2016 play Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is a lovely tribute piece to Jane Austen's most beloved characters. Set two years after Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet sisters (minus Kitty) gather at Elizabeth's estate for Christmas. Pemberley is grand, and the characters are grander. All the favorites are found in this "fan fiction" world of Austen characters. OU's School of Drama presents this holiday play in the Weitzenhoffer Theatre, an intimate black-box style space that allows for "theatre in the square" and creates a cozy setting, fitting for the interior of the country estate.

Of course, these are COVID times, so all actors are masked. All chairs are socially distanced, all audience members must also be masked, and no backstage or costume changes are used during the show. This is indeed the "New Normal", as we keep hearing, and as tiresome as that rhetoric is becoming, it's still quite necessary. Director Seth Gordon is using it to the production's advantage, however, by incorporating stage directions in place of touching and shared props. This keeps the actors six feet apart at all times, and adds the additional charm of a well-spoken and charismatic actor, Evan Wolfe, to read some of the actions. Notes typically jotted down during blocking and acted out during the performance are now read aloud, with all the inflection and intrigue necessary to convey the actions.

Wolfe describes several moments throughout the show, while the characters pause to let these moments play out in imagination only. This depiction of prop usage and cross-body motions, such as hugging, kissing, and exchanging gifts, is a delightful and effective method of maneuvering this pandemic. It serves to remind, as those who've ventured to see theatre during this time can attest, that theatre is more than doable, even with added restrictions.

This story centers around Mary Bennet, the middle Bennet sister, and the only one not yet married. Mary is intelligent and witty, well-read and talented at the piano. She's a catch. And yet she remains overlooked. Jodianne Loyd is Mary, and she's enchanting as the middle sister. Loyd employs quirky mannerisms, sharp-tongued wit, and a bounce in her step. She's smart and engaging, and quite simply, she's a force to be reckoned with.

Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy, Lizzie to Austen fans, is portrayed by Emma Woodward. Lizzie is a proper hostess, delighting and confusing her guests when she puts up a Christmas tree. This focal point of the set was unheard of in 1815, and it's fun to see the cynicism toward what has become an almost universal holiday tradition. Woodward is happy and proud as hostess and wife, and she's even more committed as a sister. Woodward does justice to one of the most loved characters in all of literary history, creating a Lizzie that's vibrant, lively, and charming. The audience can easily see how Darcy fell.

Levi Hawkins is Arthur De Bourgh. The young man has just inherited his aunt's estate and wealth, and comes to Pemberley to sort things out. Hawkins is animated as Lord De Bourgh. His interactions with the Bennet sisters range from touching and endearing to laugh-out-loud hilarious. Hawkins has electric chemistry with Loyd, quite the feat from so far away.

Joseph Lawrence Hoffman is quite gentlemanly indeed as the fabled Mr. Darcy. The man of the house and a genteel host from head to toe, Darcy is the most swoon-worthy leading man in literature. Hoffman plays it well, cool and suave with a mischievous glimmer in his eyes. Modern men take note, Darcy is the very definition of sophistication and charm, and Hoffman is well-cast.

The Bingleys are portrayed by Gabriella David as Jane and Devin Ricklef as Charles. Austen fans will be delighted to see the happy continuation of this couple. The two are more in love than ever, and Jane only wishes to help her sister Mary achieve such love for herself. Ricklef is dignified and gracious as Bingley. He makes an amusing, loveable character. Equally as enchanting is Gabriella David as Jane. She's the voice of reason, the anchoring oldest sister and the peacemaker of the family. David is perceptive and quick-witted as Jane, just as discerning and well-rounded as her sisters.

Alyssa Carrasco is a firecracker as Lydia. This younger Bennet sister ran off with a soldier in Pride and Prejudice. Now Lady Wickham, Lydia is restless and unsettled in her role as wife and homebody. Used to society and fun, Lydia seeks out entertainment in daring and scandalous ways. Carrasco is energetic and clever, a strong-willed young woman who keeps everyone on their toes. Carrasco's scenes with Hawkins prove to be some of the most uproarious of the show.

An Austen-esque play such as this would be nothing without some romance and intrigue, and even a love triangle. In sweeps Sophie Losacco to shake things up as Anne De Bourgh. Lord De Bourgh's presumed fiancé, Anne has a lot to lose and won't go down without a fight. Losacco is dynamic and spirited as Anne, and the trouble her presence causes is almost too much for Arthur.

Every player in this cast is professional and on top of their game. Since there are no entrances and exits, the cast members sit around the stage in chairs when they're not in the scene. This requires the actors to be switched-on and engaged the entire performance, and they are.

While the understudies are not seen at the reviewed performance, they work hard to make themselves ready to perform at a moment's notice and deserve a nod. Understudies for Miss Bennet are Jolie Brandstein, Cassie Pierce, Dalyn Kvapil, and Drew Lotter.

Live theatre is scarcer than ever, and Miss Bennet is a balm for everything we're missing right now. It provides two hours of carefree entertainment, nostalgia, and holiday cheer. Scenic design by Cliona Smith is gorgeous and sweeping, filling the space of the theatre and bringing the audience into the story. Period costumes by Emily Cejka are festive and colorful. Lighting design by Ian Evans is warm and inviting.

The changes made by Director Gordon to accommodate COVID restrictions make for an innovative and engaging show. This production, and the professional level of performance given by the School of Drama students, proves that theatre is still accessible. It doesn't have to reside in the realm of the feasibly impossible. It's not rocket science, in fact. It's art. And art, like all of us must be right now, is adaptable.

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley runs until November 22nd at Weitzenhoffer Theatre on OU's Norman campus, 563 Elm Ave. For tickets and info on their full season, visit theatre.ou.edu.


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