BWW Review: PRIDE & PREJUDICE at Dorset Theatre Festival delights and astounds
Full disclosure. I love Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice so I have been eagerly looking forward to Dorset Theatre Festival's production pretty much all summer. I was equally curious to see how Kate Hamill's adaptation would shape and edit the 400+ page novel to fit the into a two hour and twenty minute time frame--including intermission.
How would director Christopher V. Edwards orchestrate an eight-person ensemble to populate the entire world of Austen's novel?
Before the show begins, a red velvet curtain is closed on the proscenium stage. There are the old-style footlights along the apron and a ghost light is illuminated stage right, signalling to the audience that we are entering an in-between space--a theater set within a theater--all while classical romantic music plays in the background.
The curtain opens to reveal a backstage against the upstage wall. Actors are at dressing tables preparing for the performance, costumes and props are visible on hooks and over chairs. We see their faces in the mirrors reflecting back at us. As they move downstage--still in their white undergarments--they get into two lines and begin a social dance, one that you might have seen at one of Austen's balls. But that's where the similarities end, for the music suddenly shifts to the Fugees' "Ready or Not" from their 1996 album The Score. Lauren Hill swoons "Ready or not, here I come; you can't hide. I'm gonna find you and make you want me." The dance--one of three such numbers choreographed by Alexandra Beller--just as quickly shifts to match the music until two actors, presumably Lizzie and Darcy, freeze downstage left in a pool of light, eyes locked, as a bell rings and just a quickly the dance scene dissolves and the world of the play takes shape before our eyes.
Alexander Woodward's set is comprised mainly of three large, rotating wall panels that move throughout the play to create the many different manors and estates. The concept is effective, allowing for hallways, various doors, and the pivotal outdoor scene set at Darcy's Pemberley Estate. Importantly, it also allows the original "backstage" to remain in partial view for the entire production and actually creates a backstage for the actors' many costume changes.
Did I mention the many costume changes? The eight ensemble members play 14 of Austen's most critical characters in the novel (I noted that the fourth and penultimate Bennet daughter Kitty was excised, as was a colonel, and an aunt and uncle--they were hardly missed). Haydee Zelideth's costume design was wonderful, allowing both attention to detail and easy in and out functionality that allowed actors to manage swift transformations between up to three different characters. All wore white converse except for Mr. Darcy, who wore a pair in black--a man apart.
Act One is an uproarious riot. As Mrs. Bennet played by Joan Coombs squawks and preens over her brood, attempting to secure promising marriages for any or all of them, we watch as hopes rise and fall, rise again and then are dashed to pieces, culminating in a stunning, act-closing tableau. The other ensemble members nimbly jump from role to role, often playing cross-gender and always playing with unbridled enthusiasm, energy and commitment.
Of particular note, Ryan Quinn, Aishling Pembroke and Carman Lacivita create phenomenal characters that showcase their acting chops. Quinn plays three roles, jumping from the catty and shallow Ms. Bingley in a formal black gown with feathers, to the charismatic but shifty Wickham, and finally to Mr. Collins, whose hilariously idiosyncratic mannerisms leave you simultaneously wanting more and praying for the character's swift exit from the stage.
Pembroke is enough shallow, vain, man-chasing trouble for both herself and the aforementioned missing sister Kitty, but her depiction of Lady Catherine De Bourgh in Act Two was an utter delight and quite a contrast to the frivolous and headstrong Lydia.
Last but certainly not least, Carman Lacivita inhabits and exaggerates middle sister, Mary, to tremendous comedic effect. Described in Austen's novel as the plain sister, into music and moralizing, Mary in the hands of Lavicita becomes a veritable spook and the sincerest of malcontents. The effect is hilarious as she moans about constantly being left behind, forgotten, neglected and has a habit of startling others when she suddenly appears very nearby. Again, in stark contrast and in heightened exaggeration, Lavicita transforms into Bingley--a hyper-extrovert to Mary's introvert. There's no mistaking it; we've gone well beyond caricature when you realize the actor must have been asked to play his character as if he were a literal golden retriever. Nothing could be more apt for Austen's Mr. Bingley; the physical comedy pushes right into farce and invites the audience to enjoy the ride.
Act Two is decidedly more sober. There are no more hip-hop mash-up dance numbers as the plight of the Bennet sisters starts to look very grime indeed. This change in emotional landscape allows more of the characters' humanity to more fully emerge. Omar Robinson's portrayal of Mr. Bennet moves from caricature to exhibit a more reflective side to the patriarch allowing a shift in the dynamic of his own marriage. He likewise plays Lizzie's best friend Charlotte with sobriety and resolve, as she attempts to make the best of her own marriage.
There are too many moments of brilliance to capture in a single theater review--the repeating motifs of lightning striking and bells ringing (shout out to designers Deb Sullivan and Ian Scot respectively), the allusions to other great works of literature from Arthur Miller to Hemingway to Shakespeare (I am sure I missed some), the absolutely electric chemistry between Jessica Frey's Lizzie and Dave Quay's Darcy. There is something for everyone, including the younger set: there were several children at our matinee performance including my own 10-year-old companion. The play was a hit with all, my companion later bemoaning that there wasn't a sequel we could go see.
"Pride & Prejudice," by Kate Hamill at Dorset Theatre Festival plays August 9-25 at Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, VT 05251 $48-$58. For tickets or information, call 802-867-2223, or go online to dorsettheatrefestival.org.