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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Pride and Prejudice

Or: An Assembly such as This.

Is there any Felicity in the world superior to this? To watch the wit and wisdom, the naughtiness and niceties of Jane Austen, distilled by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan to a trim and fleet adaption. And the further delight of seeing it placed in the capable hands of artists ready to cultivate the humor and heartache often overlooked in those 200 year old tomes? I cannot think so.

The world of Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy, is so tenderly and artfully recreated for our benefit, that it hardly seems the far off golden age but as real, immediate and gripping as our own world (though containing a lot more corsets and actual manners).

Director Jessica Thebus has knit two wings on to Austen’s timeless story, a prolog and an epilog about the simple love that comes from the simple act of reading. As well as these work, that is the happy end of all Modern intrusion and the rest of the story speaks for itself. Mrs. Bennet (Emma Cadd) has a problem. Five problems, to be exact. Her five daughters who exhibit between them every kind of peculiar behavior which will do them no good, as Mrs. Bennet continuously reminds them, in hunting down husbands. This being 1813, if the girls do not get married and sharpish they will end their lives miserable, destitute and reviled by the neighborhood. Elizabeth (Maddie Weinstein) second eldest and the family wit, does not care overmuch for her mothers concerns until a rich young man, Charles Bingley (Pat Buetow) moves into the nearby manor and takes a lively interest in her elder sister Jane (Olivia Cygan). Though anxious to ensure her sisters happiness Lizzie finds herself distracted by Mr. Bingley’s friend, the genteel but incredibly frosty Mr. Darcy (Michael Silberblatt). The two of them enter into a series of witty skirmishes, each professing their profound dislike of the other. And if you can’t see where that is heading, I despair for you, I really do.

Jane Austen’s story is by no means a light and simple affair: one does not breeze through Pride and Prejudice. There are nigh thirty characters, eighty different scenes and a whole new set of social semaphore to acquaint ourselves with. Thanks to Hanreddy’s and Sullivan’s adaptation the story runs like water: boiling over or around every obstacle and always keeping our attention on the go.

Thebus’s bare stage, assisted by some delightful literary-born props, some artless but whole hearted miming sequences (the carriage scene is particularly noteworthy), and a team of footmen and maids shuffling chairs back and forth helps keep the energy moving as swiftly as possible, though with such a large cast, and so many large social gatherings to create there are times when our focus is absolutely inundated.

Still after a time one comes to see what the production is doing is draining away the swamp of nostalgia that generally bogs down Austen, leaving her words to fly free (and how they fly), the elegant trappings of her time, (Those Costumes! Anna Wooden, the designer responsible for the lush banquet of color and elegance describes herself as “a lover of all things Jane Austen” and it shows), and illuminating that far from being stuffy or internalized the agony and the ecstasy of the characters is just as real and painful as our modern dramas, though without the cheap releases of sex and violence. That’s not to say there isn’t sex and violence, they just have the good nature to remain off stage.

Of course at the heart of all this we have our immortal pair: Lizzie and Darcy. Weinstein and Silberblatt are more reserved than you might expect: there is no flash of lighting when their eyes lock, and even the swords of their sparing have to be sharpened on moments of deep awkwardness. But as their acquaintance deepens, and each begins to unlace the mask the other puts up towards the world, their intimacy, though still marvelously edgy, grows and mingles to a titillating degree. Still waters run deep.

Both actors have chosen to build their characters into people who, despite their love of words, aren’t given much opportunity to speak in their lives. As Lizzie jokes: “We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb.” Which is meant in jest but as we see at Longbourn Lizzie’s voice is just one among many (and much more strident) sisters. Mr. Darcy, because of his position is expected to be wise and withdrawn, follows his duty to the letter. It is only together that they begin to sock each other with the choice phrases that bring them, and us, into a deeper state of affection. Silberblatt, holds fast to this state, using his rich bass voice to glide across Austen’s language as over the surface of a lake. Sometimes he does err on the side of being an ambulatory statue, but his ability to measure the quivering of Darcy’s cool repose when it is startled, derailed or just plain pricked by Miss Bennet, that we catches of the real man beneath.

Weinstein is a touch more lively, given to frequent, impotent expressions of outrage or concern that go unmarked by her company. In company, unless her feelings run away with her (and they do. Often.), Lizzie must settle for a raised eyebrow, or a well timed jab of her chin to get her full meaning across. As an actress Weinstein may rely a little too heavily on her hands to smooth her thoughts out before her, but when motivated by real urgency, and the whole of her brought into motion, this fault is forgotten in face of her force, her elegance and her excellent vulnerability, trying in vain to hide the beating heart on her sleeve.

Of course the inamaroti aren’t the only characters in this story, nor even the most important. If I had time to name all the well handled rolls I saw unroll and wind up over the evening... but I don’t, so I’ll be brief. Cadd as Mrs. Bennet hit the bulls eye in the character’s mercurial, breakneck transitions from greatest joy to deepest pain (often within the course of a sentence). She showcased both her shallow hypocrisy and her prodigious big-heartedness towards the daughters she pokes and prods for their own best interest, while also remaining the comedic heart of the show and the engine that drives it along at breakneck pace. Mary (Abby Pajakowski), Lizzie’s younger, snobbish sister, provided us with bushels of a more refined laugher as, under the ponderous weight of her own intelligence, as she vainly tries to direct the flow of social events either with some interesting fact or a complicated, dour piece on the air-pianoforte. The unctuous Mr. Collins (Sammy Zeisel), Lizzie’s cousin and hopeful suitor, oiled his way about, crashing into furniture, executing ridiculous gestures of etiquette, even engaging in some opera. As uncomfortable as he was to see slink about, the audience notibly perked up when ever Mr. Collins reared his oily comb-over throughout the show, if only to see what kind of malarky he was up to now. And of course we have Jane and Bingley, as two understated and underrated lovers as ever were put to pen, glideing past each other, bestowed with poetic restraint and lingering glances by Buetow and Cygan. They are shadows of our heroes, but shadows with a great depth of feeling in them, both pain and joy and might well deserve a novel of their own.

Which puts this critic into revery: Why is Jane Austen so enthralling? Why do we return to her time and time again, seeking solace and an inch more of understanding of her stories? Why does this story of assemblies, and teas, small time nobility, and entailment laws still get trotted out and, more to the point, get greeted with such affection for the last two hundred years.

Some (coughbloodyphilistinescoughcough) say they are dry and stodgy, overly nostalgic, over romanticized or, at worst glorified chick-lit that will not die. But Thebus, quoting the writer Nora Ephron, gives the crisp rebuff of saying that we are drawn so close to Lizzie’s and Darcy’s stores that we become them. Austen wasn’t only tickling our sense of humor, or stringing our hearts along, she was also trying to give us stories, non-preachy parables and non-laborious lessons, of how to become better people to our family and our peers, to look for the consequences of our actions, and to turn away from evil, no matter how harmless and attractive it might appear. Her stories are as useful today as they were in 1813, and only need good minds to interpret them and good hearts to speak them. And in an assembly such as this, they have found plenty of both.

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