Friday, October 30, 2009
review of "Pride and Prejudice*
[portrait of Jane Austen from english.upenn.edu]
The best things about Gonzaga's production of Pride and Prejudice (continuing tonight at 7:30 pm and on Sunday at 2 pm) are the stage adaptation of the novel by Marcus Goodwin (which he himself directed at Seattle's Book-It Rep Theater nine years ago) and the direction of Brian C. Russo, in keeping the traffic of so many Regency dandies and high-waisted gowns flowing.
The opening image is impressive: all five Bennet girls striding confidently right at us and sharing the famous opening line about "a single man in possession of a good fortune": At a stroke, the aggressive/precarious/desperate situation of the unmarried daughters is established.
There is much moving-about of furniture and clambering into and out of carriages, but Goodwin and Russo have managed to mingle scenes both crowded and intimate in a mostly fast-moving way. Several first-act scene transitions, however, lagged, slowing the pace; entrances should start before exits are fully completed.
The standouts in the cast are Brigid Carey -- showing range in dual roles, from the hands-thrown-up-and-shrieking society-gossip hysteria of Mrs. Bennet to the remote hauteur of Lady Catherine DeBourgh -- and Jason Meade as Mr. Darcy -- handsome and aloof at first, but gradually making the transition to a man willing to explain himself and show his vulnerabilities.
I'm no Austen expert, but it didn't appear that any major chunks had fallen out of Goodwin's stage version. Which is both a strength and a weakness. Somehow he encapsulates an entire novel in about 2:20 of running time (with intermission), and the pace has almost cinematic quickness. But no one reads P&P all at one go -- and being subjected to a crash course of country strolls and elaborate missives and squealing excitement and hands excitedly clasped in anticipation of the next gentleman caller ... well, I love Austen, but her talent is for the dry narrative observation (not easily included in a theatricalized version, though Goodwin includes several, announced presentationally by the actors). Austen's narrator's voice, of course -- even with the adapter working hard to preserve it -- is going to fall out of any stage version.
Russo shared with me that, when asked about the fall production, women in particular would repeatedly volunteer their personal connection with Austen's novel. And it's true: Elizabeth Bennet (played here by Millie Duchow, straining too much vocally but good at being feisty and self-assertive, as she was with in the title role of Shrew this summer) has to face familiar obstacles: overcoming her own misperceptions; fighting the restrictions of class and gender prejudice; fending off acquaintances who are snooty, superficial and stupid; enduring the insufferable self-regard of that damnably handsome (and rich!) Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth, in other words, provides a template for women's self-determination in a world with rules (all that curtseying and formal dancing and yes-Mum propriety).
Michael Barfield's unctuous Mr. Collins (the nerdy clergyman with no social skills and elevated self-image) was subtly comic: slight stumbles, twitchy mouth, out-of-step awkwardness, a wonderful mixture of ineptitude and self-confidence -- an awkward bear cub scampering among all the ladies with their pretty dresses.
John Hofland's set design sketched in Regency elegance with five large gilt frames depicting a mansion's exterior, the corner of a grand ballroom, and so on. With some inlaid designs surrounding a central wooden floor, and with Summer Berry's gowns and waistcoats depicting the formal wear of Austen's world, we got a strong sense of how constrained these people were by etiquette and propriety.
The second act dragged and the acting's uneven, but the Gonzaga Pride and Prejudice provides a Cliff's Notes reminder of what Austen's novel is like, and the many challenges that likeable Elizabeth faces and overcomes. Just old-fashioned chick lit? No. Universalized human experience performed so convincingly that the high stakes will be apparent to all? Not that either. The Goodwin/Russo Austen provides many amusing moments and scattered insights, but it's like getting hit with a hardback in the forehead: There's an overwhelming sameness when you drink your P&P all at once.