By Mig Windows
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is one of the most famous female authors of all time. Of the handful of novels that she completed in her lifetime — and one that she came near to completing — Pride and Prejudice endures as a classroom favorite. Frequently adapted by Hollywood and the BBC, it has inspired spinoffs, knockoffs, urban retellings, and even a Bollywood musical.
So it was only a matter of time before Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, now in its 75th season, would eventually bring this literary classic to the stage.
Directed by former artistic director Libby Appel, Pride and Prejudice hit the Angus Bowmer Stage on February 27, using an adaptation by JR Sullivan and Joseph Hanreddy just fresh from the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.
For those of you unfamiliar with the novel, it concerns the Bennets of Longbourn, a family whose social status far outweighs their wealth. They have five daughters: Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Catherine, and Lydia. Mrs. Bennet fusses over filling the coffers while clearing out more spots at her dinner table by marrying off her daughters, while Mr. Bennet, the sole male wandering through this cloud of estrogen, spends most of the story hiding out in the library, popping out once in a while to make a witty remark.
Actually it isn’t really about that – that’s just the backdrop. What the play is really about is Elizabeth, the second-oldest Bennet daughter, and her love/hate acquaintanceship with a gentleman who goes by the name of Mr. Darcy, because his first name is FitzWilliam, and the kids probably teased him in school about it. Darcy and Elizabeth argue, banter, tease, and eventually confide in each other much in the same vein as Benedick and Beatrice in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, though in (surprisingly) longer sentences.
As is almost always the case with OSF, the production is aesthetically agreeable, with exquisite costumes that capture the feel of Regency-era England, some enviable interior set pieces, and not one, but four chandeliers!
The set, too, is gorgeous, though it would have been nice for there to have been more of them. As it was, there was one multi-functional set used throughout the play, with the furniture pieces swapped for one another depending on where the action of the scene was to take place. When Elizabeth arrives at Mr. Darcy’s grand estate of Pemberley toward the end of Act I, the back wall separates, revealing to the audience at last that huge watercolor mural that had been teasing us through those windows for all that hour or so. Once the wall splits, it never comes back together; perhaps signifying new openings into Elizabeth’s prospects, or perhaps because it looked neat, I’m not sure. It’s a somewhat confusing moment toward the beginning of the play when the Bennets arrive at a rich estate called Netherfield and comment excitingly about how beautiful it is – when it looks exactly the same as their home, Longbourn, and exactly the same as Katherine de Bourgh’s house and later slightly the same as Pemberley, only with a really big hole in the wall.
The reasoning behind this, I’m sure, is to let the audience imagine for themselves the rich interiors of Netherfield, Rosings, and Pemberley — or because, hey, sets are expensive. Perhaps it was an underhanded remark on the similarity of English households in the early Nineteenth century, but whatever the reason, the set was quite lovely and anyone who isn’t a picker of nits when it comes to set design should not be nearly as whiny as I am.
This brings me to my next point, which is that I’m not entirely sure that Pride and Prejudice is a story meant for the minimalist stage. The transitions occur in such a quick succession that the passage of time is not clearly conveyed – it seems to all occur within the same few days, rather than over the course of a year. Further helping this rushed feeling is the fact that the actors rarely change costumes or hairstyles, creating the illusion that these are immortal creatures who never need to sleep or bathe, carry an eternal supply of hairspray, and feel some deep inner desire to constantly wear the same ball-gown every day, even while taking a walk in the middle of nowhere. The marriage between the minimalism and grandiosity in this production is akin to that of my parents; incongruous but nonetheless entertaining.
Despite my nitpicking, the play is not bad. The script is funny and much of the dialogue is Austen’s own. The performances are excellent all around. Kate Hurster is a delightful lead as Elizabeth, and OSF veteran James Newcomb shows up in the middle of the play to steal scenes as the pompous and silly Mr. Collins. Other scene-stealers include Judith-Marie Bergan as the overly-dramatic Mrs. Bennet and Susannah Flood as the boy-crazy Lydia, who brought the house down on several occasions.
If there was one weak link in the casting, it was probably Elijah Alexander as Mr. Darcy, who was far more convincing as the wealthy and dispassionate snob than as the awkward but passionate suitor. My choice for Darcy probably would have been John Tufts, who was instead cast as the roguish Mr. Wickham. Tufts is not particularly roguish, but he has very good comedic timing and would have handled the awkward situations perfectly.
Still, the play is enjoyable. There are far worse ways to spend an afternoon or evening, especially for Austen fans and those who wish to impress them by sitting through 2 hours and 40 minutes of witty but wordy English diatribes. The former may find the play rushed and abrupt, but entertaining, while the latter may be pleasantly surprised with the play’s coherence and fluidity.
Pride and Prejudice runs till the end of October, which means that, yes, you can go see the show on Halloween and dress up as your favorite character if you want to.