by Jeannie Marlin Woods
When it comes to staging the classics, you have to be aware that the audience arrives with a set of preconceptions. When that classic is a revered novel such as Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, those preconceptions are quite varied and layered. Some spectators may come with the hope of a “museum production” where the beloved characters are exactly as expected. Others may be hoping for a new slant or a dusting off of the cobwebs of an old favorite. For the second group, the Chester Theatre Company production of Pride@Prejudice is just the ticket.
With a multi-talented ensemble of five actors, director and author Daniel Elihu Kramer creates a charming and imaginative production that simultaneously gives us classic Austen and a fresh 21st-century perspective as well. The script is a mashup of scenes from the novel, interspersed with the chatty Q&A and commentary from the Internet oozing from the virtual world of Austen-mania. There are amusing replays of classic lines as interpreted by the movies, there are whining pleas from students trying to write a paper on the book, there is a confident and clear explanation of the plot by a seven-year-old child, and a spirited review of study questions. Add to that a massive chart of character relationships and a magnificent explanation of how an “entailed” estate is a profound threat to the future of a man with five unmarried daughters and you have a terrific new look at a true classic.
There is really no need for me to recap the plot of Austen’s most popular novel. It has been around for more than 200 years and a lot of Kramer’s script is designed to make sure that plot is clear. Austen’s comedy of manners traces the love story of a wealthy, arrogant young man, Mr. Darcy, and an opinionated, independent young lady as they navigate the complex social constructs of money, marriage, and affection in 1813. Will these two vastly different people ever realize they are perfect for each other? They do, or course, because this is the world of Jane Austen.
Another difficulty for adapting a novel to the stage is how to keep dozens of primary characters distinctive while working through a plot rife with arcane social customs and references. This can be achieved with a large cast, a vast array of costumes and settings to delineate the story. Director/author Kramer takes the opposite approach. Two men and three women enter the space dressed in attractive, period costumes. The space is simplicity itself. A low painted platform holds four chairs and a desk and chair sit off to the side. The large cyclorama at the back provides a lovely wash of color. The proscenium framed in “ivy” gives a sense of being in the English countryside. Two columns stand down left and right—they are stacks of books, reminding us we are in a literary world. This simple set designed by Juliana von Haubrich is both beautiful and functional—one could say inspired. Lara Dubin’s sensitive and imaginative lighting constantly changes the emotional tone according to the ups and downs of our characters and enhances the aesthetic.
Within this lovely space Austen’s novel comes to life in the hands of a remarkable acting ensemble. They quickly jump from the lovely lilt of British dialects to the flat and straightforward American speech as they step outside the novel and question, clarify, and comment on it. Jane Austen was known for her keen observance of her society and here we get to step out and see that world from a different angle. What amazes is that the 20+ characters are distinct and true to type. With no costume changes and only a handful of props, the actors rely on expressive voice and gesture to create the entire world of Darcy and Elizabeth. And another observer is present—Jane Austen herself appears at her desk to share letters and thoughts from her own life, giving further insights into her relationship to her famed novel.
The actresses all turn in strong performances. Candace Barrett Birk brings an “Angela Lansbury” quality to her rendition of Mrs. Bennet, the ambitious and embarrassing mother of the five Bennet daughters. She embraces the larger-than-life zest of Mrs. B. as she tries to marry off her daughters to secure the family’s survival. Birk also affectively plays the role of Charlotte and a variety of other characters. Clair Fort is seen as Jane Bennet (the eldest and prettiest Bennet daughter) and as a mature and congenial Jane Austen, among others. Lovely portrayals all, but she really shines as the egregious old bat, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who she plays with great brio and bile. Marielle Young is a delight as Elizabeth—her primary role. She articulates the delicate and subtle changes of Elizabeth who is the last person to realize she is, in fact, in love with Darcy.
As for the men, Luke Hofmaier plays an enormous range of characters and is excellent at finding the exact posture and voice for each one. His Mr. Bennet is a kind but taciturn father and his Mr. Bingley is charming and congenial. Both Hofmaier and Brian Patterson have that elusive quality of charm, which is essential for the characters they play. Patterson’s primary roles are Mr. Darcy and Mr. Collins. As Darcy he is a handsome, dashing figure who effectively conveys that prideful and condescending man. But it is the warmth and sweetness that he brings to the role that makes his Darcy so special that we really accept that he is worthy of Elizabeth. It is all the more fun when Patterson dons a pair of glasses and totally shifts into a gangling posture and dorky voice to interpret the tedious and annoying Mr. Collins who will evict the Bennet family when he inherits the family fortune. Patterson gives us a character so funny and irritating that there is no question why Elizabeth refuses his proposal.
The very excellent individual performances are buoyed by a terrific sense of ensemble and group storytelling. Director Kramer is a most impressive director in fostering that ensemble work and in staging the play with elegance and style. It is easy to layer a lot of production elements to relate a story, it is much more difficult to select the simplest means possible. Kramer succeeds because of his clarity of vision and his effective collaboration with his designers. In addition to the marvelous set and lighting, the production is enriched by charming period costumes by Christina Bean, original music and sound design by Alexander Sovronsky, and lovely country dances choreographed by Balinda Craig-Quiada. So, Pride@Prejudice is a worthy addition to Austen’s legacy.
With this production the Chester Theatre has returned to its venue in the Town Hall. Last night’s performance was a celebration of their return home after the pandemic forced them to leave. The hiatus enabled the company to upgrade the bathrooms and ventilation system. The enthusiastic opening-night audience and the amusing and charming foray into the Austen universe bode well for the highly esteemed company. Pride@Prejudice is a wonderful evening of theatre that is not to be missed.
Author: Daniel Elihu Kramer
Director: Daniel Elihu Kramer
- Candace Barrett Birk as Mrs. Bennet, Charlotte Lucas, etc.
- Claire Fort as Jane Bennet, Jane Austen, etc.
- Luke Hofmaier as Mr. Bingley, Mr. Bennet, etc.
- Brian Patterson as Mr. Darcy, Mr. Collins, etc.
- Marielle Young as Elizabeth Bennet, etc.
Scenic Design: Juliana von Haubrich
Costume Design: Christina Beam
Lighting Design: Lara Dubin
Original Music & Sound Design: Alexander Sovronsky
Choreography: Balinda Craig-Quiada
Stage Managed by Leslie Sears
PRIDE@PREJUDICE runs June 23 through July 3. Wednesday at 2pm, Thursday at 2pm and 7:30pm, Friday at 7:30pm, Saturday at 2pm and 7:30pm, Sunday at 2pm. Talkbacks follow Thursday and Saturday matinees. Cast Conversations follow Friday night shows. There is a Panel Discussion following the first Sunday matinee.
Box office hours Tuesday through Friday from 11am to 3pm. Tickets are available via the website 24/7. Check with the theatre regarding Covid restrictions. Phone: (413) 354-7771. Running Time: 2:45 with one intermission at the Town Hall Theatre, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester, MA 01011. Closing July 3. Website: chestertheatre.org