To turn Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice into a play, writer Jon Jory chose an approach somewhat reminiscent of reader's theater, and the current Denver Center Theatre Company production maintains the style. The story of the vulgar Mrs. Bennet's attempt to marry off her five daughters — and how, despite all, witty, spirited Elizabeth and her good-hearted sister Jane find love — is told on an almost bare stage, with scenery that feels two-dimensional. The costumes are more ornate, though their color palette is limited; there's lots and lots of white. When someone mentions another character, that character tends to appear somewhere on the stage, artfully posed. And there are a few moments of deliberately self-conscious theatricality, as when, representing a group setting off on a journey, a miniature horse pulls a miniature coach across the stage at a comical gallop — a moment irresistibly reminiscent of the work of Thaddeus Phillips's Lucidity Suitcase and the crazy kids at Buntport. But Jory doesn't use the device with the same conviction that Phillips does, and these interjections are nothing more than distracting, funny bits.
Further underlining the artificiality, some key roles are double-cast. At first I wondered if the Denver Center Theatre Company couldn't afford a full complement of actors, but a quick Google search revealed that this was Jory's intention. It presents less of a problem in the smaller roles: Kristen Sieh does very nicely as both Elizabeth's sister Mary and her friend Charlotte. And there's some humor in having the same actress, Jill Tanner, appear both as a housekeeper and as the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh — a role she carries off magnificently. But the part of Jane's beloved, Bingley, is absolutely central, so it's distracting to see the actor who plays him, Steven Cole Hughes, pop up later as Bingley's cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. How are we to empathize with the man or worry about his feelings for Jane if he's going to morph into someone else at the drop of a hat? And while David Ivers's representation of poor, pompous Mr. Collins is excellent — he actually makes the ghastly man more human, conflicted and complex than the serious characters — that speaks much better for him than for the production as a whole. He's forced to take a much more cartoonish approach to the crude Mr. Lucas and the bearded old Mr. Gardiner.
No one comes across as rounded or deep. In the book, depth and context are supplied by the voice of the author-narrator, with those omniscient, warmly ironic tones so loved by Austen fans. But here the characters are on their own, and though they're sometimes clever, they're neither insightful nor self-revealing. Nisi Sturges, who plays Elizabeth, tends to be an external actress, though she does warm up and exhibit some vitality and emotion as the evening progresses. Her Lizzie is pert and quick-tongued — though not, I think, in love. Poor Mr. Darcy has very little to do or say, so actor Rick Stear is confined to standing around watching the others or listening while Lizzie scolds him, and he sometimes seems in thrall to his own costume, particularly the absurdly tall hat stuck on his head in the second act. I saw Stear in the Denver Center's Lobby Hero a few years ago, and he was full of life and sneaky charm, so I know he could have done much more with Darcy, if there were anything here for him to do. There's no sensuality in either portrayal, and you never feel for a minute that Stear and Sturges are fighting a strong attraction toward each other. The same can be said for Bingley and Brenda Withers's Jane. Isn't one of the primary reasons for Elizabeth's rage at Darcy the fact that he's broken her sister's heart by persuading Bingley to give her up? If this Jane gives a toss, it isn't evident. At least not till the proposal scene.
Pride and Prejudice
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through December 15, the Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
Jay Stratton doesn't have the facile charm we expect from the philandering Wickham, or perhaps it got choked off by a costume that makes the poor man look like a pouter pigeon. Larry Paulsen turns Mr. Bennet into an insubstantial imp, the kind of character you'd expect to encounter in Dickens. As an interpretation, this is off: The script tells us that while Mr. Bennet is a weaker man than he should be, he does have dignity, and he represents any claim the family has to respectability. It is her father's laconic wit that shows up in daughter Lizzie, transmuted to quicksilver. Jeanne Paulsen isn't a natural choice for the overblown, over-the-top Mrs. Bennet, but she does make the woman somewhat funny.
The evening's pleasures arrive in unexpected places: Ailish Riggs's smooth, nasty, snobbish Miss Bingley; and Kathleen M. Brady, gaudily costumed and funny as the girls' kindly aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, projecting humanity and kindness despite the play's limitations.
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One of the great delights of Austen's novels is the sense they convey that beneath the elaborate social veneer, the formal speech and elaborate fashions, passionate human hearts are beating. The Bennets' story is comic, but there's real desperation behind Mama Bennet's shenanigans, because in Austen's time, unmarried women were condemned to meaningless lives of genteel or not-so-genteel poverty. Here, like the audience, they're simply condemned to boredom.