What’s broader than broad comedy? What’s more dramatic than melodrama? Whatever answers those questions is happening right now as Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice tornadoes onto to the Seattle Rep stage. It's a fast, funny and unlikely combination of styles, like Jane Austen Vitamix-ed with Noises Off and American Pie into an easy-drinking theatrical smoothie.
That’s a gross image and I’m not even a little bit sorry, because this Austen interpretation does whatever it wants, and that’s what makes it work. If what you love about Austen’s novels is their delicious nuance, unbreakable Regency-era etiquette and the allure of extracting huge meaning from tiny gestures, this maybe isn’t the Austen for you. Here we’re going big until the moment we go home.
A large, glossy wood-planked floor lays front and center, the “stage” within our stage, where most of the actual Pride and Prejudice story plays out. Around that stage is crowded every prop and costume we’ll need throughout the show, as the seven actors shift between characters and locations. A thunder sheet hangs upstage right; mannequins, doors, vanities, water buckets for “rain” jostle for space in this off-stage area, where much of the show’s internal choreography takes place, the mechanism inside this tightly wound watch. When they’re not on “stage,” the actors sit on the sidelines, switching costumes, swigging from water bottles, watching—and laughing at—the action, ready to return to the fray.
Hamill seems to adore the classics but not venerate them. Her 2014 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility for Bedlam Theatre Company in New York earned the rising company its most glowing notices to date. Her P&P premiered this summer, a co-production of Primary Stages and Hudson Valley Shakespeare.
The story, in brief, for those unfamiliar: The Bennet family lives in rural England. Mr. and Mrs. Bennett have several unmarried daughters about which Mrs. Bennet (Cheyenne Casebier) is hella stressed because it’s 1813 and marriage is basically the only way women can be financially secure. She needs one of them to marry someone rich, because, thanks to rules of patriarchal inheritance, their family home will go to a male cousin when Mr. Bennet (Rajeev Varma) dies.
Our heroine is Elizabeth Bennet (Kjerstine Anderson), second of the Bennet daughters, but when the rich Mr. Bingley (Trick Danneker) moves in near their home in rural England, he falls for the oldest daughter Jane (Emily Chisholm) and she for him. Bingley’s surly and even richer friend Mr. Darcy (Kenajuan Bentley) comes to visit and meets Elizabeth at a dance. At first they hate each other, but, of course, both couples end up together, which is not a spoiler because nothing written in 1813 can have spoilers.
The paths that those two pairings take make up a mere sliver of the plot. There are also haughty, relationship-sabotaging relations, unsightly illnesses. Flighty little sister Lydia’s (Hana Lass) flirting gets her into trouble, sickly sister Mary (Danneker again) gets ignored and elicits a scream of surprise every time she pops on stage. This production's plot intricacies are more fun to see than they are to explain—I took a sports-fan’s pleasure in watching Danneker switch from coat to dress, leaving Chisholm to dance with his empty jacket until he wriggles back into it while she doesn’t miss a step.
That internal choreography is incredible and the convention brilliant, because when any detail is screwed up (did O’Neill really forget to take off those epaulets?) it’s even funnier. Funnier still is when the audience realizes it can get involved—the wounded face O’Neill pulled at our booing was unforgettable.
"Irreverent" is such a dumb tee-hee aren’t we having fun word and this production, directed with precision and glee by Amanda Denhert, goes beyond that. Not because it does the unexpected; rather it does exactly the expected in every bad rom-com and frat boy comedy. Every possible innuendo is made, every piece of low-hanging fruit chomped with relish. Actual lines: "Balls, balls, balls," "I would never want to get you wet." Boobs are grabbed, someone says "ah-OOOOO-gah!", someone else is pantsed. Songs like "Golddigger" and "Can’t Buy Me Love" populate the soundtrack; a pleasant garden scene gets the full Peer Gynt treatment. Pulling off a show like this with integrity is hard, and I took unmitigated joy in watching actors with comic chops take free, loose-limbed rein to chew the scenery and go after what they want. It's ridiculous, and I mean that as a compliment.
By definition, much is lost in this kind of translation. Lizzie, written in the novel as bookish and sensible and thus unusual, is kind of a dummy here—but so is everyone else. Do I think that a man in a dress is something we should still be falling back on for laughs? I do not. But the qualms were few once I checked my eye-rolls at the door. I'm sick of classic stories being co-opted for modern moralizing, and Hamill has scrubbed anything heavy-handed from her interpretation, leaving saturated washes of story that are way more narratively effective than any overt messaging. In a production this frantic, silence carries a lot of weight, and I was surprised to be stunned the first time that Lizzie and Darcy met and the world went quiet. It was a silent pealing of bells set off by the mayhem around them—followed by the literal pealing of handbells played by the surrounding cast, because of course.