Jane Austen’s Bennet sisters have enjoyed something of a theatrical renaissance in the last few years courtesy of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s Christmas in Pemberley triptych. For those unfamiliar with those works, they took the characters and plot line from Austen’s Pride & Prejudice and continued the story by moving the focus off of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy and on to the other sisters and ancillary characters. The shows have been met with great audience and critical favor.
I’m convinced the success of those shows was due in great part to Gunderson and Melcon honoring the original work in spirit and letter. Their 21st century addenda allowed one to surrender completely to the 19th century British upper-class world of love, marriage (and financial security) that Austen so vividly encapsulated in her original novel.
That’s not possible with Kate Hamill’s theatrical adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse has a production running on their Monroe Stage through August 28.
While Hamill keeps the heart of the story and characters mostly intact, she takes a Reduced Shakespeare Company approach to everything else – cross-gender/generational casting, quick changes, anachronistic props and costume pieces, and intentional over-acting. The show’s strong leads – Miranda Jane Williams as a sneaker-clad Elizabeth (Lizzy) and Matthew Cadigan as Darcy – play things straight while it’s left to the rest of the eight-person cast to engage in the tomfoolery necessary to fill the other roles.
Director Laura Downing-Lee has assembled a fine cast and they all do good work in their primary roles. It’s when they take on their secondary and tertiary roles that things start to sputter. The show veers into sketch comedy as actors furiously cover their switch from one character to another. It’s an odd combination of things that might have worked better if the show had moved at a quicker pace.
It’s almost as if playwright Hamill didn’t trust the audience to get the humor found in the source material, so she threw in men in dresses to guarantee a laugh or two. That’s a shame, because I’d love to see this cast in a straightforward adaptation of the material.
The show’s licensing agency assures us that “This isn’t your grandmother’s Austen!” and I wholeheartedly agree. I’m just not sure whose Austen it is.
‘Pride & Prejudice’ runs through August 28 on the Monroe Stage at 6th Street Playhouse, 52 W. Sixth Street, Santa Rosa. Thurs-Sat., 7:30pm; Sat-Sun, 2pm. $22–$44. Proof of vaccination and masking are required to attend. 707.523.4185. 6thstreeetplayhouse.com
Photo by Eric Chazankin