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Pride and Prejudice — Bristol Riverside Theatre

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Michael Halling (Mr. Darcy) and Hannah Kahn (Elizabeth Bennet) in Bristol Riverside Theatre’s Pride and Prejudice.

Storytelling is a part of theater, a major, integral part, but it is one element among many in staging a play. Story, or plot, is particularly challenging  to a cast and director when they are working with a classic work of literature, such as Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Characters and incidents may be so engrained in the audience’s mind that a literal performance seems preferable. An adapter has yet a larger burden, how to translate literature to drama and keep a beloved, familiar work lively for the stage while keeping fidelity with the source material and the author’s, Austen’s, intentions. Also, a book can be of any length and include passages with no images, so an adapter has to figure out whether sequences are extraneous while a director is challenged with how to realize a scene that is not expressed pictorially.

      That most towering of film critics, Pauline Kael, once posited that all stories find their perfect form. First-rate novels, she said, usually make poor movies because the book, the written form, is ideal. Movies and plays fare better when based on second-rate novels, “Gone With the Wind” or “The Godfather” for example, because they leave the filmmaker more liberty, and they tend to be cinematic in the original storytelling. This may explain why movie directors have had such a difficult time bringing a satisfying version of “The Great Gatsby” to the screen . It certainly sheds light on the perils of adapting Austen for the stage, as will continually happen this theater season.

      “Pride and Prejudice” has been a darling of 2013, the bicentennial year of its publication. Not only has the Bennet family found its way into many theater’s seasons. All of Austen is fair game. The Bristol Riverside Theatre’s decidedly formal rendition is the second of three productions “P&P” we’ll have locally. An adaptation of “Emma” has come and gone. A staging of “Sense and Sensibility” arrives in the spring.

      Austen has been luckier than most novelists, at least in terms of how her films translate to movies. The delightful 1940 film version with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier pares Austen’s story to its essentials while putting a strong emphasis on character and accenting the Elizabeth-Darcy romance above others. In the ‘mid-1990s, a flurry of Austenmania brought forth films of “Sense and Sensitivity,” “Persuasion,” and “Emma,” all excellent in spite of taking different approaches to presenting Austen’s tales, “Sense and Sensitivity” benefiting from Emma Thompson’s witty, knowing script and performance, “Persuasion” taking wing on Roger Michell’s interesting direction. About the same time, Masterpiece Theatre issued the definitive “Pride and Prejudice” with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, Firth becoming a lasting model for Mr. Darcy. Another film version with a lovely portrayal of Elizabeth by Keira Knightley was released in 2005. “Northanger Abbey” had its modest turn on TV in 2007. So you see Hollywood and London are not blind to the popularity of Austen and the advantage of bringing her work to audiences as staged entertainment.

     Austen has not fared as well in the theater. Few adaptations of her novels have enjoyed long or lauded runs on stage. I still long to see a production of “First Impressions,” a 1959 musical version of ‘Pride and Prejudice” that starred Polly Bergen, Farley Granger, and Hermione Gingold as Mrs. Bennet. It can’t be so bad, no one will touch it.

      Back to the current theater and Bristol Riverside.

     Jon Jory, the long-time guru of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, home of a prestigious annual new play festival, a prolific playwright, and frequent adapter of classic literature, wrote a stage version of “Pride and Prejudice” that has been given two local productions this year to varying results. The Hedgerow Theatre’s staging in March kept matters light and was simple and charming with good anchoring performances by Rebecca Cureton, Carl N. Smith, Zoran Kovcic, and others. Bristol Riverside Theatre’s rendition, more opulent and more open with extended dancing sequences and a picture of a set by Meghan Jones, carefully tells Austen’s story but somehow lacks liveliness and a sense that its characters exist beyond the page or stage.

      Director Keith Baker unfolds Jory’s play in a series of tableaux, quite fitting for the Regency period in which it set.  Hannah Kahn, Jo Twiss, Rose Fairley, and Mary Elizabeth Scallen do much to animate their characters and make them multi-dimensional. Twiss’s natural and clever portrayal of Mrs. Bennet, the mother of five marriageable daughters she would like to see bestowed to worthy/wealthy husbands, is especially enjoyable. Her laughter at a ball, deemed inappropriate by some who witness it, is particularly pleasing and well performed. Twiss makes you root for Mrs. Bennet and sneer at the snobs. In general, though, the characters in Bristol’s staging seem formal and too tied to the conventions of Austen’s day. They don’t come off of the page as strike us a flesh and blood figures in an ongoing world. As a result, the production proceeds slowly and  rarely gets beyond storytelling to drama.

       The story is clear, and Baker’s liberal use of dance is engaging, but Bristol’s “Pride and Prejudice” remains a work of words, many of them Austen’s, and doesn’t take on a consistent theatrical life of its own. The production excites little more than interest in the next plot twist and does not involve one greatly in the central event of the story,the haughty cat and mouse romance brewing between the proud, self-satisfied, quick to judge Elizabeth Bennet and the shy, diffident, class-conscious, and generally unsociable friend of the rich gentleman who undoubtedly came to the Bennets’ community to find a wife, Mr. Darcy.

      Bristol’s “Pride and Prejudice” holds your attention and doesn’t disappoint as much as it makes you wish it was more brisk and active. Instead, it meanders through scenes and is lent spirit and depth by actors who break through the formality and show their humanity. Baker provides amusing touches, the carriage ride that takes Elizabeth, her aunt, and uncle to Darcy’s neighborhood for example, but for most of the play, his cast takes a stand-and-deliver approach. Ironically, the dances that add texture and delight to Baker’s production may also distract the audience from catching nuances regarding central characters, the impetus being to watch and enjoy the Regency dances. Jory is a bit to blame for some slowness. With his script presented in such a deliberate manner, you see how prosaic it is and how intent Jory to cram in as many plot details as he can. Jory doesn’t leave Baker many opportunities for a grand coup, such as the entrance of Mary Elizabeth Scallen as the proper and privileged Lady Catherine de Bourgh, or Darcy’s unexpected discovery of Elizabeth and her relatives on his property.

      Scallen, like Twiss, is  clever at conveying the archetypical nature of her character while remaining authentically and palpably human.

      Luckily another of the actors who breaks through the tight comedy of manners mode is Hannah Kahn, who plays Elizabeth, the focal figure of Austen’s novel and Jory’s play. Kahn economically but thoroughly communicates all of Elizabeth’s best and more questionable attributes, letting you see the character as a true heroine but one with faults, usually involving prejudice and making rash conclusions after hearing only part of a story. Kahn, even more than Jessica Bedford as Elizabeth’s elder sister, Jane, endows Elizabeth with the common sense and poise that allows her to have a wider world view. She recognizes some of the disorder in her own house — silly younger sisters, an overbearing mother who may have too much personality and ambition for a matron of her time, a wise but socially uninterested father who would rather retire to his chair with a book than deal with gossip or Regency mores — but she accepts it as reality and expects others to see the good and sweetness behind her parents’ facades and her sisters’ giddiness.

      Kahn is also deft and natural at exposing Lizzie’s temper and wonder at matters she doesn’t quite comprehend, Mr. Darcy’s attitude towards his boyhood companion George Wickham or her friend Charlotte Lucas accepting marriage to the unctuous Mr. Collins, whose hand Elizabeth refused. Kahn is even more engaging when her anger has a cause, for instance when she confronts Mr. Darcy about destroying her sister, Jane’s, happiness by advising his friend, the rich bachelor who moves to the Bennets’ vicinity, Mr. Bingley to forgo arranging a marriage engagement with her.

      Kahn is complete and winning as Elizabeth. Hers is a well structured, well played performance that adds wit and light into the Bristol production. Even saying that, she is sometimes hampered by the show’s slow pace.

      She can also be sabotaged a bit by being angled away from some of the audience for occasional crucial scenes. Another fine performance is supplied by Rose Fairley who doubles as Elizabeth’s middle sister, Mary, a bookworm, and her close friend, Charlotte Lucas. At one of the balls, Elizabeth and Charlotte have a close tete a tete about various matters, the almost rude standoffishness of Mr. Darcy, except when he stares at Elizabeth, the seeming attraction of Jane and the most eligible Mr. Bingley, and general talk about neighborhood doings. A lot else is going in this scene, dancing and some of Mrs. Bennet’s antics, but what stymies it is audibility. Between the music and Kahn facing away from me as Elizabeth, I could not follow Lizzie and Charlotte’s drift from my seat in the opposite corner of the house. Let me tell you, I can hear whispers from three blocks away. People know not to say anything near me if they don’t want me, or anybody else, to know it.

       The difficulty hearing was disconcerting because Fairley is so fine in both of her parts. Keith Baker is to be congratulated in his conception of Mary, who dresses plainly and listens to conversations while remaining immersed in the book she is reading. Mary is often a blip on the “Pride and Prejudice” landscape, one who is going to be hard to marry off for different reasons than blight her daffy younger sisters’ chances. Fairley embraces the easy, uninterested demureness that Baker intends. She becomes an integral and charming part of the show.

      The actress is even better as Charlotte Lucas, the most reasonable and practical person on stage, one who can provide Elizabeth with a sounding board or an alternative opinion. Fairley’s Charlotte is merrily content. She knows who she is and acts accordingly and in her best interest. She exudes the quiet, yet lively, calm to be a true friend to Elizabeth, even to the point of making her understand her alliance with Mr. Collins and his proximity to the DeBourgh fortune.

     Jessica Bedford handily shows the goodness of Jane Bennet, and her stoic acceptance of her lot, a lot Elizabeth is quite as willing to tolerate as fair and just.

     Wigs get in the way of Samantha Kuhl and Jessica Gruver, each of whom is double cast. Kuhn brings out the willfulness and immaturity of the always infatuated Lydia Bennet, the youngest of the daughters. She may be too modern in the way she does it, though, and her wig, all uncombed strands of blonde, makes her seem eccentric instead of young and eager, especially when her locks are compared with the neat, more fashionable hairdos worn by the other Bennet girls. Lydia is inclined to be fancier, but she would also be the most conscious of her appearance and how it may impress others. Kuhl is graceful and proper as Mr. Darcy’s sister, Georgiana (but her wig in that role is wrong as well; it has too much hair for Kuhl’s face).

       Gruver is all pert sense as Elizabeth’s aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, Lizzie’s companion when she has her fate-filled chance meeting with Darcy. As Miss Bingley, the wary sister of the rich bachelor, Gruver is too modern in sensibility. She also has a wig problem. She wears one that looks more from the late 19th century, a style that belongs more in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” than in “Pride and Prejudice.” Beyond that, Gruver tips Miss Bingley’s disapproval too broadly. She seems pruny and critical, the latter of which she may be, instead of the gracious hostess and gentlewoman of her time who would be more arch and couch her feelings more craftily.

      Topher Mikels conveys the openness of Mr. Bingley’s personality, and his attraction and affection for Jane, quite well. He also scores well as Col. Fitzwilliam. Marc LeVasseur is a dashing George Wickham, but somehow his character doesn’t register as more than someone included to provide information or a plot twist. Neither LeVasseur nor Wickham establish the role as more than a plot device, a calamity for the Bennets and a chance for Darcy to spring to action. We need to see more of the overall effect Wickham has on the Bennets.

      Grant Chapman brings animation to the Bristol production as Mr. Collins, the clergyman who will inherit Mr. Bennet’s estate from under his wife and daughters and who chooses Lizzie as a potential bride to keep the property in the family. Chapman is funny, but unlike Twiss as Mrs. Bennet, he is too antic for the surroundings. He doesn’t seem real. You are supposed to see why Elizabeth would reject him, but as Chapman plays Collins, you can’t understand, except for lines in the script, why Charlotte does, financial advantage or not. Chapman is more spot on in the smaller roles on William Lucas and Mr. Gardiner.

      Michael Halling may take Darcy’s hauteur and abhorrence of expressed emotions too seriously. The actor never bends in his rigidness or formality. You hear him say she is attracted, against his will and social sense, to Elizabeth, but you don’t see it. In their personal and intimate scenes, especially those that follow the couple’s meeting on Darcy’s estate, Halling remains distant. You can see Kahn, as Elizabeth, succumbing to charms and traits she was always aware Darcy had but dismissed because of his sour, disdaining aspect. When he demonstrates his mettle as a man, and a noble, the coldness lingers.

      Meghan Jones’s set for “Pride and Prejudice” is a pastel charm with spaces that can become intimate or seem expansive enough to house a ballroom. Stephen Casey proves once again he is a master at designing accessible but elegant dances. It is good to see Baker retained Casey, who I was afraid would be lost to the area now that he is not the resident choreographer at Bucks County Playhouse.

      Regency clothing is simple, but Linda Bee Stockton has to match the right taste to the right character in “Pride and Prejudice,” and she does, the wigs for Lydia and Miss Bingley notwithstanding.

      “Pride and Prejudice” runs through Sunday, November 24 at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120  Radcliffe Street, in Bristol, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $46 to $36 with discounts for students and members of the military. They can be ordered by calling 215-785-0100 or going online to www.brtstage.org.

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