(runs in, wildly ringing a bell)
MR. BENNETT! WAKE UP!!!! THE GAME IS AFOOT!
Addison — In Jane Austen’s day, people might have called actor/playwright Kate Hamill an “impudent miss”—and then, working their way up, a hoyden, a hussy, and perhaps—hearing her mock the sacred courtship rites of early 19th-century England—a harridan.
But Jane would have loved her.
Hamill’s quick-witted, athletic and endearingly goofy adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a much-coveted regional premiere for WaterTower Theatre and artistic director Joanie Schultz, is every author’s dream: a loving re-do that keeps the heart of the work, but finds already inside it the seeds of a modern and even (dare we say it?) Millennial sense of fun— fast-paced, ironic, playing “for laughs” and “for real” in the same moment—that should put a few more generations under the Austen spell.
And yes, Mr. Darcy’s white shirt gets very wet—we can say no more.
The buzz begins pre-show as the audience takes in Chelsea Warren’s clever scenic design, a painted-on Persian carpet that spans the stage. Are those the markings of a basketball court peeking through the pattern? And team colors for each half of the space? The romantic adventures of the sisters Bennett (four, not five, in this version; alas, poor Kitty) play up and down this “court,” with bells and buzzers (sound designer Ryan Swift Joyner, call the NBA), referee’s whistles, and even the kind of disco-ball lighting (from designer Leann Burns) used for special effects in the sports world…and for freshman “mixers,” appropriately enough.
The sports atmosphere is no accident. Hamill [read TJ’s interview with her here] knows that the Game of Love is always “on” no matter how time goes by. The clothes, rules and expectations may change, but it still comes down to a search for “the One”—and the world never makes it easy.
Yes, Mamma, yes — who cares if Mr. Bingley is amiable or decent or even BREATHING, all that matters is that we’ll win! 5,000 a year, if only Jane can ENSNARE him!
The stakes for the Bennett girls—from a decent family, but with no fortune to attract suitors—are very high. Not marrying means a lifetime of living “off” family or friends, making yourself useful in their homes. Hamill lets us laugh at the rules young women lived by—but their mother Mrs. Bennett (a fabulously frantic Wendy Welch, operating on high alert from start to finish) speaks of her mission in military terms: skirmishes, ambush, victory. This is a war for her girls’ futures, and she aims to win.
One of Hamill’s great gifts as an adaptor is knowing when to “translate” Austen—and when to let the original dialogue work its magic. Mr. Bennett, for example (Bob Hess doubles brilliantly as the girls’ sarcastic father and Lizzy Bennett’s pragmatic friend Charlotte), always was that snarky—Hamill only adds a few choice lines to his part. And when she makes serious alterations, she gets the essence right. Though the look is changed, there really isn’t much distance between the dour, over-academic sister Mary of the book and the hoodie-wearing teen of Hamill’s version: they both hate everyone. (Mary’s accusing eyes and she-Hulk lunges brought to you by Justin Duncan, who doubles charmingly as the ever-happy Mr. Bingley, the single, rich bachelor Mrs. Bennett is chasing.)
As Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, Jenny Ledel and John-Michael Marrs are a match from the comedy gods. They “meet cute” physically: spunky little gal, broody tall guy; terrier, meet Great Dane. She talks; he’s a clam—so bad with words that when he gets around to telling his feelings, he SHOUTS them like an all-caps tweet.
To watch Lizzy back away from Darcy, wringing her floaty net skirt in her hands (costume designer Sylvia Fuhrken Marrs barely lets it cover the jeans and sneakers Lizzy wears beneath), is to see a fierce young woman heading for the ropes. Lizzy has vowed she won’t marry—but it’s always “the thing you swore you wouldn’t do” that gets you, isn’t it? Lizzy could only fall for a different kind of guy—and once we’ve seen Darcy dance…he’s different, for sure. Ledel isn’t a poised Elizabeth; she’s truly wrestling (sweat and all) with her conflicted emotions. And Marrs makes a delightful Darcy, eyes glassy as he finds he can’t shake his attraction to this “unsuitable” young woman.
Steph Garrett bounces around as little sister Lydia; gung-ho and practical, she soaks in the talk of courtship and marriage and itches to try her hand at the game. Her “doubling” as the upper-crust Lady Catherine De Bourgh is hilarious, and a tribute to dialect coach Sara Lovett. The whole cast pulls off more-than-decent English accents, but Garrett’s elaborate “Lady Bracknell” drawl could stop traffic.
Kate Paulsen is a graceful presence onstage as the rule-abiding Jane—too “proper” to tell the sweet-natured, puppyish Bingley (the guy loves a tennis ball) how much she cares for him. We cheer when she finally makes her move: can a “good girl” take charge and win the day? Paulsen doubles comically as the flapping, squeaking Miss De Bourgh, an Addams Family wraith trailing in the wake of her mother Lady Catherine.
Brandon Potter struts his stuff by “tripling” as the play’s quite distinct trio of baddies: Wickham, the handsome officer who tells Lizzy (falsely) how Darcy ruined his life; Collins, the girls’ oily cousin, out to marry one of them; and Miss Bingley, a “mean girl” socialite with designs on Darcy. Sexy, pervy or just plain nasty, Potter finds the obnoxious self-confidence that links these characters—and his live-wire energy keeps us watching.
Director Joanie Schultz finds flow and clarity in the constant scrum of action onstage, and a clever balance between the classic plot (the arc of Austen’s story hasn’t changed) and Hamill’s fresh and revelatory bits of business and comedy. And when romance comes to a head, she and the cast aren’t afraid to pare things down to a girl and a guy—and to play it (almost) straight for a few memorable moments. For laughs and for real, working together.
WTT’s show is an exciting “get” for the area, one of only three nearly simultaneous productions nationwide (the others are at Seattle Repertory Theatre and NYC’s Primary Stages) to follow the world premiere of a few months ago. Hamill plans to adapt all of Austen’s major novels (her Sense and Sensibility had a sold-out off-Broadway run little more than a year ago) with a musical of Northanger Abbey coming up next, in all probability. In the meantime, she’s become an ever-hotter theatrical property, working on adaptations of Little Women, The Odyssey, and a musical version of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea with the Dallas Theater Center.