Coupling is a game, a dance, a joke. And also a matter of life and death. Jane Austen’s elegant, humorous and enduring nineteenth-century novel about women seeking mates, Pride and Prejudice, has been transformed into a two-hour play by Kate Hamill receiving its regional premiere from the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company. This stage version of Pride and Prejudice features eight actors, most of whom take more than one role. There’s some hilarious cross-dressing, a lot of ridiculously funny bits, persistent bell-ringing and the occasional revelatory moment.
You remember the plot: Mrs. Bennet is desperate to get her daughters married, a tough task because there are four of them (five in the novel, but Kitty has disappeared). Since the family home will pass out of their hands to the contemptible Mr. Collins on Mr. Bennet’s death, Mrs. Bennet’s desperation is understandable, though not so her constant plotting, gossiping and meddling. Settling these daughters into financially stable homes would have been crucial in Austen’s time; failure could mean penury. The two oldest daughters are lovely, conventional Jane and smart, spirited Lizzy. Two gentlemen come to town: Mr. Bingley instantly and gratifyingly falls for Jane. His friend, Mr. Darcy, sneers at the local country bumpkins — most particularly Mrs. Bennet — though something in him responds to Lizzie’s independence of spirit. Plot twists and misunderstandings follow.
Hamill is a fearless and inventive writer. Last year, the Arvada Center showed her version of Sense and Sensibility , which is even crazier and more jittery than Pride and Prejudice and includes actors morphing into animals and objects, and pieces of furniture waltzing around the floor. But if things are less kinetic in this production, they’re every bit as eccentric.
Under the direction of Rebecca Remaly, the actors do fine work. Mary, the bookish Bennet daughter, is played by Casey Andree, who sometimes sheds his skirt to become a puppyish Mr. Bingley. Mary lurks at the edge of family scenes, occasionally sliding up, silent and hostile, behind the others to their loud annoyance. It’s a finely controlled comic turn, though every now and then Andree touchingly expresses Mary’s rage and hurt at being constantly ignored.
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In another successful cross-dressing turn, Lindsey Pierce is both Lizzy’s practical friend Charlotte and Mr. Bennet, whose world-weariness and half-amused, half-exasperated response to his impossible wife she expresses perfectly. Brian Kusic has three roles to juggle, and the funniest is his take on Bingley’s snobbish, elegantly dressed sister: Caroline doesn’t like Jane and wants to get rid of Lizzy and get Darcy for herself. Kusic is also effective in the straight role of charming but caddish Wickham. Mr. Collins is a pompous ass in the novel, but his portrayal in this production — also by Kusic — is a bit too clownish for my taste, as is the device of having everyone in the cast turn front to pronounce the name of Collins’s benefactor, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in a hyper-loud declamatory tone. Adeline Mann plays Lady Catherine and does well as flighty, young Lydia, too. Only three actors each inhabit a single character: Even Anastasia Davidson, in one of the lead roles as lovely, slightly dopey Jane, is also Lady Catherine’s squeaky daughter.
Mr. Darcy is usually portrayed as dashing and handsome enough to compensate for his arrogance — remember Colin Firth rising from the lake in his wet shirt? — though historians say muscular chests were considered unattractive in Austen’s day, and the “real” Darcy would have been bewigged. Zachary Andrews is tall and handsome, but he plays the role with a muffled awkwardness that’s interestingly original and also makes sense: A touch of Asperger's would explain Darcy’s rudeness and the trouble he has expressing his feelings for Lizzy.
Candace Joice’s Lizzy — tangle-haired, expressive and vulnerable, blurting out her thoughts as they arise — has enough vitality for both of them, and the scenes in which they discover their love are moving. Finally, Leslie O’Carroll’s Mrs. Bennet is so funny, strong and very occasionally flatly sensible, she weaves the entire venture together.
This Pride and Prejudice may be a hoot, but there’s something serious at the core, something about the fear, joy and uncertainty of early relationships, a reminder that, as Shakespeare once told us, “The path of true love never did run smooth.”
Pride and Prejudice, presented by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company through October 7, Dairy Arts Center, 303-351-2382, betc.org.