The Rep's 'Pride and Prejudice' Dazzles, But Erodes Its Enduring Themes

If "uproarious knockabout farce" and "high-octane explosion of madcap theatrical frenzy" aren’t words you usually associate with Austen, consider yourself alerted.
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Emily Chisholm (Jane) and Kjerstine Anderson (Lizzy) in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of Pride and Prejudice

Seattle Rep’s production of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice—adapted by Kate Hamill, directed by Amanda Dehnert—is an uproarious knockabout farce, a high-octane explosion of madcap theatrical frenzy. If you’re thinking those aren’t words usually associated with Austen, consider yourself alerted. Packed with sight gags, pratfalls, wacky anachronisms and broad caricature, it’s very much in the spirit of Dan Savage’s Greek Active sendups staged at Re-bar in the ‘90s (The Childryn’s Hour, King John, The Best Man).

The story of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy—in which his pride and her prejudice delay their hard-earned realization that they’re perfect for each other—is carried off with panache, with tireless energy and crack timing from the cast of eight. (Five of the eight play multiple roles, and their quick changes provide a good deal of fun.) If, as in any farce, not every joke lands, there’s always another coming along in 3.7 seconds; and if your favorite parts of The Carol Burnett Show were those moments when Tim Conway made Harvey Korman crack up, you’ll have a blast.

There’s a suggestion of this approach in a line both Austen and Hamill put in Elizabeth’s mouth: “Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.” The Rep’s staging not only relishes in follies and inconsistencies, but underlines, italicizes and boldfaces them, covers them in glitter, trains klieg lights on them and has them shout through a megaphone.

Act 2 scenes between Elizabeth and Darcy (Kjerstine Anderson and Kenajuan Bentley), however, do forgo schtick for feeling and chemistry, and bring the production’s one moment of true beauty, at the very end—a heartfelt payoff after two and a half hours of mania. If Anderson’s Rachel-Dratch-on-Benzedrine approach only slightly distinguishes Elizabeth from the nutcases surrounding her, she skillfully doesn’t let them drown her out, and Bentley deftly performs the primary task of any Darcy, which is to make the audience’s growing sympathy for him mirror Elizabeth’s.

My objection to this version, and it’s a major one, is that somewhere along the line—from Austen to Hamill to Dehnert to the actors to us—a sense of real affection for the characters gets lost. For most of the evening, this production seems actually not to like these people. Those characters whom Austen satirized in her novel, naturally, come in for the most brutal treatment, but even with Elizabeth herself—possibly the most widely and fervently beloved fictional female in all of literature—some pains are taken to show her shallow and unadmirable sides.

One character in particular is the recipient of a significant shift in emphasis by Hamill, and I want to dig into this a bit. Elizabeth’s best friend Charlotte Lucas—neither rich nor beautiful, and thus disadvantaged in the marriage game—accepts Mr. Collins, a sententious boob whom Elizabeth had turned down. (Brandon O’Neill goes full-on Jerry Lewis in his portrayal.) I’ve long wondered whether Austen saw Elizabeth and Charlotte as dual alter egos: Elizabeth, sharp, outspoken, independent, is Austen’s ideal self, while Charlotte, pragmatic and resigned, comes closer to being a reflection of Austen’s own situation—an unsparing look at the social and financial risks women of Austen’s day took by remaining unmarried. A speech in the novel lays out Charlotte’s character: “I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins' character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.”

As it happens, Austen is known to have received only one proposal in her life—in 1802, which she accepted one evening and withdrew the next morning. It’s not hard to imagine that when she later revised Pride and Prejudice before its publication in 1813, she looked at Charlotte and thought “There but for the grace of God…” Their experiences ran parallel up to the moment when Jane took back her ”Yes.”

So I feel protective of Charlotte as something of an authorial stand-in, and thus was dismayed to see that Hamill has added out of nowhere a frankly mercenary aspect to her character. Collins, you see, rather than Elizabeth or her sisters, is set to inherit the Bennet family home, and Charlotte is presented as unfeeling about this—and she will not shut up about Darcy’s income, exhorting Elizabeth not to hesitate in grabbing it. To graft an unsympathetic side onto the one character who brings the novel a sobering dash of pathos seems a bit slanderous. The actor given this problematic part is Rajeev Varma, making Charlotte one of three characters who are cross-gender-cast (three men play female roles; no women play men). This is not the problem; the problem is that all three are set up as objects of ridicule, and the drag is deployed as an engine of that ridicule.

This will sound harsh, but this show comes off as if it was designed for people who really don’t care for Austen—who have no stomach for the period trappings, who disdain the courtship plots as trivial, who remain unmoved by her insight into human nature, and who don’t mind seeing any of this downplayed. Eventually the frantic energy begins to feel like a distraction from, rather than an enhancement of, the book’s themes—or even an apology for them. (One of my fellow reviewers, I promise you, is going to use the line “This isn’t your grandmother’s Jane Austen” in their piece.)

Any Austen presentation is going to automatically attract her many admirers, and there’s something to be said for not preaching to this choir, but neither does this P&P make a case to the unconverted, primarily because its characters aren’t quite attractive enough to persuade them to care. “What does this author have to say to us, 200 years after her death?” is a fine question to ask, and there are many ways to answer it, but in this case the Rep has merely devised a dazzling vehicle for skidding around it.

Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center, 155 Mercer St.; 206.443.2222; seattlerep.org. Times and prices vary. Ends Oct. 29.

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