Dallas — Shakespeare Dallas’ sparkling production of Jon Jory’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice exceeds high expectations thanks to director Christie Vela, and the creative team of actors and designers. Jane Austen’s second novel (originally entitled First Impressions), Pride and Prejudice is one of her most popular. Austen was writing during a time when women could not publish under their own name, using ‘Anonymous’ instead. She actually wrote First Impressions aka Pride and Prejudice during the 18th century, but it was not published until 1813. Jory has adapted the story to the stage with respect for its author and for the theatre. (It’s perhaps Austen’s most loved story for the stage, having had many adaptors, including Kate Hamill, whose adaptation was first locally seen at WaterTower Theatre in 2017 and will be staged at the Irving Arts Center starting next week.)
Jane Austen gave us realism infused with humor through very rich and continuously moving dialogue. In Pride and Prejudice, we get to explore gender and class distinctions of that time. High praise and recognition have been given to Austen for her character development and realistic dialogue. It is clear from that dialogue that she was a rebel, pushing against convention. Her stories were fiction, but the societal themes were quite real, a reflection of the time. While Jory did not keep all of the characters in the novel, he has remained true to Austen’s words on the page. Only about a dozen or so lines have been added that are not hers.
It is class which distinguishes the characters. Mrs. Bennett (Lulu Ward) and Mr. Bennett (Anthony L. Ramirez) have five daughters: Jane (Celeste Perez), Elizabeth who is more often called Lizzy (Francine Gonzalez), Mary (Marisa Duran), Kitty (Kat Lozano) and Lydia (Tatiana Gantt). Mrs. Bennett, whose social status rose when she married her country gentleman husband, is focused on her daughters’ prospects for good marriages. We see the sisters as they attend dances and receive suitors, all under the watchful eye of their parents. Their mother’s mission in life is to marry them off to wealthy or well-positioned men. Their father seeks their happiness most of all.
Mr. Bingley (Ben Stegmair) and his sister Caroline (Joan Milburn) who have rented a nearby country estate, and their friend, Mr. Darcy (Chase Bradshaw) each because of their wealth consider themselves above the Bennetts. Mr. Wickham (Evan Michael Woods), a militia officer who has had a contentious relationship in the past with Mr. Darcy, becomes entangled with Lydia, the youngest of the Bennett sisters. Mr. Collins (Jeremiah Johnson) is an ordained clergyman who is employed by wealthy aristocrat Lady Catherine de Bourgh (T.A. Taylor). Collins wants to marry Lizzy. Lizzy would rather be cast into a lava pit, so she rejects his proposal. He eventually marries Charlotte Lucas (Kristen Lazarchick). Filling out the cast is Andrew Bullard as Ensemble (which is actually the most hilariously entertaining role in the script).
There is not a weak spot in this cast which makes for a satisfying ensemble experience.
Hands down, the funniest characters are Mrs. Bennett and Ensemble. Lulu Ward is comically effervescent as Mrs. Bennett. How can one person be an ensemble? That will not be revealed here. Suffice it to say it is worth the price of admission just to see how this composite character is handled in this production
A few words about Lady Catherine de Bourgh. There are terms for labeling females who will assume male roles—trouser roles or pants roles. However, I do not think such a term is in place for men who assume female roles such as in Hairspray. Drag is not the right term for this situation, neither is female impersonation. This was a clever casting decision by Vela. In this production, the only people who will know visually that Lady Catherine de Bourgh is being played by a man, will be people who know the actor T.A. Taylor. Nothing suggests maleness. Neither his portrayal, movement, nor the costuming give clues. It is fun to imagine that Jane Austen and Lizzy might have applauded this casting decision.
Francine Gonzalez is snappy as Lizzy, hitting all of the right tones. It is essential that Mr. Darcy (pride) and Lizzy (prejudice) demonstrate growth and change, personal discovery in their characters. Gonzalez and Bradshaw accomplish this which makes the rhythm of the piece work, setting up the ending scene with much anticipation.
Believing that the strength of Austen’s characters and dialogue renders scenery far less important, Jory calls for a bare stage with movable furniture in his script, most of which are various forms of seating. Jeffrey Schmidt’s set design is clean and minimal, maintaining efficiency without sacrificing aesthetics. Graceful is not usually a word used to describe set changes but, in this case, it applies because of the quality of movement. Emily Haueisen’s scenic artistry secures the period style and creates a frame for the movement.
Lighting provides most of the atmosphere in the piece, which is not unusual. What is unusual is for a lighting change to evoke an audible exhale of pleasure from the audience. This occurs as the most gorgeous lighting transitions everyone to London.
The dances are important because they became a sort of dialogue in and of themselves. Zenobia Taylor’s choreography transitions in and out smoothly and with refined energy.
While watching a dance and listening to the classical music a familiar melody sounded from the strings. Could it be? Nooo. Yes! It was! Accompanying a period dance from the late 18th/early 19th century was a classical arrangement of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” It sounded like it might have been the Meridian String Quartet arrangement of Bowie’s 1980s megahit. These are the kinds of things … the Ensemble actor, Lady Catherine casting, and David Bowie, that Vela has dropped into the production which bring the unexpected into a class work everyone thinks they know well. Smart.
The only splinter is with sound. On opening night, some of the endings of words were hard to hear or understand. Otherwise though, the sound design consists of good stylistic choices which support the movement and the physical properties.
Shakespeare Dallas strikes gold with this production, its second winter indoors production since debuting this series last year with Hamlet.