There are many ways to stage novelist Jane Austen's cherished 1813 novel of manners "Pride and Prejudice" without losing the richness of her writing, her carefully choreographed plot and her hugely entertaining views of the world, society, wealth, influence, marriage, courtship, position, alliteration, observation and the complete absurdity of it all.
In Hartford Stage's animated, brilliantly skewered interpretation of Austen's classic character study, playwright Kate Hamill digs deep into the novel's very posh, readable text and concocts a tale of great comic relief that pushes the boundaries of manners, marriage, social standing, education and morality in the most entertaining of ways. It's still the same story, but it's crafted without the stiff, upper lip dramatics and theories of a four-part BBC presentation, a prim and proper National Theatre revival or a sprawling cinematic adaptation from the popular heyday of the Merchant-Ivory filmmaking team.
Through the bold, outrageous comedic lens of Hamill, this glorious Austenian take on "Pride and Prejudice" is a treatment like no other. It revives the original source material with such with thrill and spill, one easily succumbs to the page-turning craziness and versatility of the presentation itself, its critique of feminism and social conventions, its playful conversations and banter and its over-the-top theatrics and acknowledgements that propel the action forward with steadfast giddyap.
Played against the backdrop of Sara Brown's lush, atmospheric set design, which includes a twirling, revolving stage of early 19th century period surroundings, this frame-worthy, nontraditional take of Jane Austen - reinforced by a joyride of gleefully oddball jokes, ideas, scandals, proposals and cross-casting outrageousness - is so much fun, one wishes there was a "replay" button to watch it all over again.
Better yet, this "Pride and Prejudice" dances to its own set of rules.
It is saucy and irreverent.
It is jaunty and peculiar.
It is confident and spirited.
It is grand and glorious.
Its screwball silliness is masked with chiming cynicism.
Set in rural England, circa 1813, the play centers on the themes and conflicts of the day when women either married for love or for purely economic reasons. For plot purposes, because none of Mr. Bennet's four daughters - Lizzy, Mary, Jane or Lydia - can inherit his Hertfordshire estate (in the novel and the 1940 film adaptation starring Greer Garson, there are five daughters) they are pressured by both he and Mrs. Bennet to marry well and find financial security in what is commonly known as "good marriages."
And so, the game begins.
Who is suitable? Who is not?
Who has money? Who has prospects?
Who can help secure the Bennett family fortune?
Which man - there are many - will bewitch the Bennett sisters?
And who, during the final fadeout, will get their happily ever after?
At Hartford Stage, "Pride and Prejudice" is being staged by Tatyana-Marie Carlo whose directorial credits include "Marisol," "She Kills Monsters," "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," "Clybourne Park," "Real Women Have Curves" and "Don Quixote." It's a labor of love fueled by smart directorial choices, great comic zing and snap, well played, collective gimmickry and push and pull silliness.
In shaping Hamill's inventive playscript, she creates a lively, circus-like arena where private conversations, upper class exchanges, chance meetings, exits, entrances, philosophies, theories, dispositions and playful romantic notions are tossed and bandied about with giddy, front-and-center abandonment.
At the same time, nothing is out of place, thrown in or shockingly tactless. As "Pride and Prejudice" evolves, Carlo adapts a vigorous, refreshing and mischievous gait that is confident, inventive, apparent, surprising and knee-deep in Panto-like creativity, assertiveness and period melodrama.
Here, timing is everything and Carlo balances humor, pathos and wit with dynamic, well-oiled flashes, flourishes, sweeping, sloping, prancing, preening and expansive gestures that complement the merriment and drawing room theatrics at hand. It's all very genuine, unexpectedly funny stuff that lives up to its potential and tears into the 1813 source material of Austen's legacy with a voice that is confident, snarky, devious, enlightening and whimsical. Directorially, she also marshals her eight-member cast swiftly and expertly through the play's fast-paced scene changes, fadeouts, musical interludes and dances with splendid musicality.
This is timeless, universal, thoroughly engaged Austen played mainly for laughs, coasting effortlessly between Hertfordshire, Netherfield, Kent and Pemberly, then back again.
That's not all. Glitter balls and disco-like dances spring out of nowhere. Modernism is mixed amusingly with Regency wanderlust. Sight gags pop up with in-and-out craziness. Characters run wildly across the stage screaming, ranting and raving. A purposely paused Hertfordshire location gets a Hartford, Connecticut name drop giggle. Certain lines are purposely exaggerated as if "Pride and Prejudice" was reborn as a late 19th century melodrama. Period fans are opened and closed by the female characters with very loud flaps and flapping. The fourth wall is continually broken to allow certain characters to flirt with the audience or enter and exit through the actual theater. Spilled punch prompts rowdy crotch jokes.
The use of a mannequin, garbed in period servant's clothing, to announce the arrival of certain characters, is well worth the price of admission as is the hilarious substitution of broomsticks and poles (all dressed in various, familiar costume fragments) whenever an actor is playing a different role, but their previous character, is called upon, if only fleetingly to participate in the ongoing scene. A true stroke of genius on Carlo's part.
"Pride and Prejudice" stars Renata Eastlick as Lizzy, Carman Lacivita as Mr. Darcy, Lana Young as Mrs. Bennett, Anne Scurria as Mr. Bennett and Charlotte Lucas, Madeleine Barker as Mary and Miss Bingley, Sergio Mauritz Ang as Mr. Bingley, Wickham and Mr. Collins, Zoë Kim as Lydia and Lady Catherine and María Gabriela González as Jane and Miss de Borough.
Everyone in the cast are tremendously gifted, talented performers whose charm, warmth, wit and knack for this type of full-tilt mayhem and craziness give the production its unifying lift, pulse, drive and fever-pitched adrenaline. Under Carlo's intuitive, fancy-free, colorful direction, each and every actor inhabits the role he or she is given (Barker as the unhinged Mary is a real comic standout) with the right comic dash and flourish that serves the material well. Everyone understands his or her role inside out and all around. They are quick on their feet. They know how to play comedy and they play it well. They engage. They entertain. They toss and turn. They give the play's multiple characterization and cross-casting conceit the creative aplomb it deserves. They have great onstage chemistry with one another. They know how to get a laugh without exposing the punchline. They can also shift gears in a millisecond whenever they are asked to change from character to character, man to woman, or vice versa.
Silly, lightweight, witty, romantic and swayable, Hartford Stage's sumptuous mounting of "Pride and Prejudice" breathes new life into Jane Austen's celebrated 19th century classic. It gallops and stirs. It tilts and glides. It delights and cajoles. It takes liberties with the actual story and gets away with it.
Playwright Kate Hamill creates a madhouse of giddy romantic mayhem, entanglement and enticement. Director Tatyana-Marie Carlo goes full-tilt in well-timed, harmonious fashion. Regency period costuming designed by Haydee Zelideth makes its mark in true couture fashion.
The entire cast has great fun with the insanely wacky material. And like several other Hartford Stage productions that came before it - "The Rivals," "Loot," "The School for Scandal," "Tartuffe," to name a few - every element works splendidly in this liberating, intoxicating staging that amusingly conveys the age-old struggle between pride and prejudice with riotous exhilaration, social mayhem, screwball indulgence and gooseberry empowerment.
In short, what's not to love?
Photos of "Pride and Prejudice" courtesy of T. Charles Erickson