Fort Worth — Look sharp, Scrooges and Nutcrackers — there’s a new show in town.
Can’t get enough of Jane Austen’s Bennet sisters — Elizabeth, Jane, Lydia, and — oh, what’s-her-name, the fact-spouting, piano-playing, that’s-enough-dear middle sister? Then raise a glass of Christmas cheer for something new, different, and right up your Austen alley: Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s delightful rendering of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.
This sequel to Pride and Prejudice is a regional premiere for SSG and something of a Christmas coup for co-founders Lauren and Jason Morgan, who sought the rights for a couple of seasons and got the green light just in time to re-vamp their lineup of shows. They’ve put together an especially fine cast (the Morgans co-direct) who keep the Gunderson/Melcon English-accent dialogue feeling fresh and natural—and did I say funny?—adding tweaks and twists that give us new insight into these familiar characters.
It’s a bit like fan-fic done right — and what’s not to like about that?
Gunderson, of course, was America’s most-produced playwright in professional regional theaters in the 2017-18 and 2019-2020 seasons according to American Theatre Magazine (and she was No. 2 in the 2018-19 season). North Texas audiences know her from Exit, Pursued By a Bear, The Taming, and I and You at Circle Theatre; Silent Sky at WaterTower Theatre; and The Revolutionists at Imprint Theaterworks. Gunderson’s Ada and the Engine is coming up next month at Stage West.
Miss Bennet’s engaging and surprisingly thoughtful plot strings us along like a set of holiday lights. What if, the story begins, Miss Mary Bennet (Karen Matheny), the socially awkward middle sister of Pride and Prejudice, grew into an offbeat but interesting young woman? It’s been two years since her Practically Perfect big sisters went off to marry their Darcys and Bingleys (and wild-child Lydia her Wickham). Left to herself, Mary has become an avid reader of science and geography, and a deft and accomplished musician. Yet she’s still Mary — volubly excited about her studies, painfully honest, a bit the “odd girl out” with her sisters. She longs for independence yet she’s lonely, too, for something she hasn’t quite named, even to herself.
Mary’s story may hold center stage, but don’t fret: there’s plenty of “new stuff” to learn about the other Bennet sisters. Elizabeth (Brie Carlson) and Darcy (Coy Rubalcaba) are still mad about each other, as are the Bingleys, Jane (Lauren Morgan) and Charles (Carter Frost) — though life is changing for all of them. Wickham (sadly offstage) is spending as much time with wife Lydia (Rebecca Roberts) as you’d imagine. And there even are a couple of De Bourghs in the Pemberley party mix: Margaret Vogel as Anne, Lady Catherine’s daughter, and Blake Hametner as Arthur, who…we can say no more.
And Elizabeth has a Christmas tree in the drawing room. “A what?” say the others. It’s a running gag, Lizzy’s early-adoption of this odd foreign tradition (German, in fact) – and it works, both as humor and as a way of recognizing our New Thing-loving selves in these long-ago people.
Gunderson and Melcon have a knack for mixing old and new. They create Austen-adjacent dialogue (I don’t think Jane herself would blink at much of it) but infuse the lines with a modern comic sensibility that tickles the 21st-century funny bone. “I’d rather marry an interesting plant than an idiot man,” says Mary in her best drawing-room drawl, reacting to the family’s worry that she cares more about botany than boys.
Like Miss Mary, Karen Matheny comes into her own with this story. She’s done fine work (and plenty of choreography) in other Stolen Shakespeare productions, but makes a particularly memorable impact here. Her portrait of Mary is multi-layered and very appealing: we laugh at her awkward movements and blurted truths — but quickly find ourselves rooting for this feminist middle child, hoping she finds the life and love she’s looking for. Likewise Blake Hametner, bringing nerd-ity to new heights as the scholarly Arthur De Bourgh, who’d rather be in a library at Oxford than the parlor of Pemberley…until he finds Mary poring over the pages of the same book he’s been reading. Hametner matches Matheny as a comic actor — and gives Arthur a surprising bent for standing tall when the stakes are high.
Brie Carlson and Lauren Morgan bring Elizabeth and Jane’s loving relationship to life with their intimate talk of husbands, baby dreams, and quirky younger sisters. Coy Rubalcaba makes a darkly handsome Darcy, who turns out to be (as we’d hoped) a wonderful guy. (Coming upon Lizzy and Jane brainstorming about Mary, he wisely plucks a candy from a dish — and runs for his life.) Carter Frost is sweet and comical as the less complex — but very loving — Bingley; he and Rubalcaba flip coattails in sync as they sit down together and share a side-eye at the foibles of everyone else in the room. These bros-in-law are buddies, we can see.
Rebecca Roberts and Margaret Vogel are entertaining as the bad girls of the story, Lydia and Anne. Both come on strong: Lydia carrying a sprig of mistletoe like a weapon, looking for someone to flirt with; Anne throwing shade on Elizabeth’s style sense, and insisting on having her own way in…well, everything. Happily, each of them has a plot line that gives them a chance to change for the better — or at least the better-ish.
The Morgans’ Pemberley set design is very handsome, and Lauren Morgan’s detailed period costumes subtly match the characters with the room in tones of cream, rose, mauve and deep red. And it’s a pleasure to know that, given the big national response to Miss Bennet since its 2016 premiere, Gunderson and Melcon have turned their one-off play into the first leg of a trilogy. Part 2, The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, is running right now in Chicago — and the story, we hear, takes place at exactly the same time as Miss Bennet, with action both upstairs and down. Apparently, Lydia is up to more than we know at Pemberley — where there’s certainly plenty of room for two plots at once.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that an audience in possession of a few bucks for tickets must be in need of another Austen adaptation. Keep them coming, Stolen Shakespeare…we’re Team Jane!