love and marriage

pride and prejudice at the trinity repertory theater.

Playwright/performer Kate Hamill’s stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which premiered at Primary Stages Off-Broadway in 2017, has now made its way to the Trinity Rep, where it runs through November 4th. In last year’s production, Hamill herself played Lizzy Bennett, and it’s possible the author’s presence made for a jolt of energy that lent the play more staying power. At Trinity, in a production directed and choreographed by Birgitta Victorson, the show, despite its sleek professionalism and commitment to the bit, seems to be struggling for a reason to exist.

Though I prefer Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice is the Jane Austen novel that has inspired a laundry list of adaptations. The most prominent is the 1995 British miniseries, a complex, well-crafted, and ambitious work remembered today for the approximately 30 seconds in which Colin Firth wears a slightly wet shirt.  

Hamill’s take is not sufficiently revisionist to be called a reinvention. There are all sorts of bells and whistles, all to do with the idea of performance. For instance, the actors cross-dress, play multiple roles, and pause between scenes for extended dance breaks to classic rock. Given that the matrimonial drama of Austen’s era was essentially an extended pageant, that’s a great starting point.

However, her double-casting gets into trickier territory. Michael McGarty’s set design leaves the backstage area exposed, so we see heroes changing into villains and men into women live. But the point escapes me, especially since the fast-paced, gag-ridden adaptation, while consistently funny, is never funnier than the novel, which has always been underrated for its wit. The program grandly announces that the double-gendering choice asks “us as the audience to consider how gender shapes the narrative event.” It seems to me it has exactly the opposite effect—in a world of rigid gender distinction, allowing characters to slip easily across those lines has the effect of erasing the threat of singledom specific to women of the time, and thus robs Lizzy’s commitment-phobic choices of their significance.

Most of the weaknesses really aren’t the actors’ fault. Rachel Warren and Rebecca Gibel, both Trinity Company members, play Mr. Darcy and Lizzy respectively (Warren also plays Wickham). The necessity of reducing the sprawling novel to two acts of theater leaves Darcy more communicative than strictly fits his character, but Warren nonetheless delivers a more-than-adequate performance with hints of Janet McTeer. Gibel is as dignified and impressive as the sensible Lizzy, who gives the best performance in the show, but is also isolated by the wackiness around her and never seems to fit in. Joe Wilson Jr.’s portrayal of the fumfering clergyman Mr. Collins is borderline incoherent—though he gets the audience on his side, it often plays like he’s mugging for laughs (which, of course, he is).

What’s great about the performance’s dance sequences is that they give the actors an unvarnished chance to contribute something new. They’re a motley crew of performers of all ages, shapes, and backgrounds, and seeing them grind to “The Final Countdown” is inherently funny and exciting.  When they’re doing Pride and Prejudice proper, though, they continually strain to inject something into the proceedings we haven’t seen a million times before; in other words, they try to banish Colin Firth and other preceding iterations of the story, with little success. This production and adaptation won’t do much for fans of Austen’s work. It’s not loyal enough to the book to be rote re-creation, yet not slapstick enough to be outright silly. It’s slickly directed and charmingly acted, but not memorable enough to last through the time it would take to read the novel—an eminently more rewarding experience—or watch the miniseries. Have you heard about that part where Colin Firth wears a wet shirt?