A first glance at the rather austere drawing room set while sitting down to the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company‘s production of “Pride and Prejudice” might lead you to believe that you were in for yet another strait-laced version of the Jane Austen classic most of us know and love. But listening to the chamber-music versions in the background of pop songs like Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” or Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” might tip you off that this is not going to be your mother’s Jane Austen. And you would be right.
Now, full confession at the outset: I am a card-carrying, dyed-in-the-wool Janeite. I’ve read every novel at least twice, made a pilgrimage to the Jane Austen museum in Bath, and will be the first to call-out any adaptation that doesn’t do her justice. But what I usually find fault with, especially in stage productions of Austen’s work, is indifference to her incredible dry wit and incisive humor, which make me laugh out loud every time I read her. There was no fear of that in this lively adaptation by Kate Hamill and artful direction by CSC veteran Sara Clark, which amps up the humor to 11. Whether it was the histrionics of Mrs. Bennet (Sara Mackie), the obsequiousness of Mr. Collins (Darnell Pierre Benjamin), or the puppy-dog antics of Mr. Bingley (Jude Walker), almost everything is played over-the-top. Whatever you may think about this production, you won’t be bored. Bold choices for a much-beloved classic, but ones that usually work, sometimes magnificently.
Most of the pared-down cast of eight play multiple roles, and their quick changes and off-beat casting choices add to the humor. Miranda McGee, who usually handles all the matronly roles (including Lady Catherine in this production) also plays the 14 year old Lydia believably and exuberantly. Three actors play both male and female roles, including Benjamin (Collins/Wickham/Miss Bingley), Walker (Bingley and a hysterically morose Mary Bennet) and Jeremy Dubin (Mr. Bennet and Charlotte Lucas). At first I thought this might become off-putting, but Mary and Charlotte especially became actually quite engaging and tender characters, and it was refreshing to hear Charlotte’s frank observations about the female condition being voiced by a male. Dubin was also very endearing as Mr. Bennet and his comic timing was, as usual, flawless..
I also feared that some of the serious themes and romantic emotions would be overshadowed by the slapstick, but that was not the case, especially in the second act. Courtney Lucien’s Jane Bennet was patient and sympathetic, and the all-important chemistry between Elizabeth (Caitlin McWethy) and Darcy (Grant Niezgodski) was palpable. McWethy’s emotional upheavals were sincere and smooth, and my only nit with Niezgodski was that he was just a bit too likable from the outset.
The set, by scenic designer Shannon Moore, was clean and elegant, played in the round with many audience members at the back stage but with a rotating turnable to allow constantly refreshing viewpoints. The sparse scenery was compensated for by an evocative lighting design by Nina Angelvis. Costumes by Clara Jean Kelly were eye-catching but not too overbearing.
One could quibble with this production if one wanted to. Some of the sight gags may have been overly broad or repetitive, and yes, Mary’s and Mr. Collin’s channeling of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” was a little too over-the-top and gratuitous. But let’s give credit where credit is due. I would rather a production like this one take risks that don’t always pan out then rely on the same-old same-old. And anything that makes Jane Austen more accessible to contemporary audiences, and refreshes the joyfulness and timelessness of her wit, is worth it in my opinion. I think Jane would approve.
“Pride and Prejudice” plays at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company‘s Otto M.Budig theater through March 28th. Tickets are available on their website, www.cincyshakes.com.