Raleigh Little Theatre’s production of Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice trades mostly on laughter, not subtlety. For the best experience, Jane Austen die-hards should check previous encounters with the original text at the door and indulge in the hilarity of this version.
To recap: Mrs. Bennet is determined to secure a good marriage for at least one of her four daughters (five in the original) to salvage the family’s financial situation. Their land, under entailment, meaning it can only be inherited by a male relative, will be lost when Mr. Bennet dies. Independent-minded Lizzie Bennet (this heroine is even more outspoken than the Elizabeth of the novel) is equally determined not to be married. Her resolve is eventually worn down by the mildly irritating, but captivating Mr. Darcy. Other romantic entanglements are given a predictable bumpy ride, but as to be expected, marriages are doled out at the end.
Hamill has stripped the plot down and advances the story with slapstick comedy, fanciful modern-day dance breaks, and various sight gags. She even manages to turn many Austen lines into great jokes.
Though perhaps made more accessible for contemporary and younger audiences, Austenites may not swoon over this rendering with its exaggerated characterizations, a propensity for alcohol indulgence, and the mixing of anachronistic elements (like using a quill at a modern side-arm student desk). All of these elements contribute to the broad comic atmosphere of this romantic romp.
Director Jeri Lynn Schulke adds another twist with the cast claiming to be members of Understudies Anonymous of the Jane Austen Hysterical Society who have been allowed to perform this play. They are listed as numbered performers (along with their roles) in the show program as well – effectively reminding the audience not to take any of the proceedings seriously.
Six of the eight actors double in roles without regard to gender, which adds to the overall comedy, and also underscores some clever contrasts. Carl Staub is delightful as he alternates between the sickly Mary Bennet, prone to outbursts of defining words or exasperation, and the boyishly shy, inexperienced Bingley, Jane Bennet’s suitor. Kevin Varner smoothly switches between the detached Bennet patriarch and that of the drab, cloying Charlotte Lucas, Lizzie’s best friend.
Brian Hollingsworth nimbly transitions from the pompous, language-murdering Mr. Collins to the oily slick charm of Wickham. Lu Meeks exercises a flair for physical comedy as Mrs. Bennett and oozes pomposity as Miss Bingley. Samantha Kiser, as the youngest Bennet daughter, emphasizes Lydia’s flirtatiousness with a slushy British accent and then adopts an over-the-top regalness for her Lady Catherine. Meg Carnahan does a fine turn as the eldest sister, Jane, but has probably the funniest moments in the entire show as Miss De Bourgh. She nearly had another actor break character with her antics on opening night. No spoilers here.
Zosia DeWitt and Justin Brent Johnson tackle the central roles of Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy, the couple who begin with a strong dislike of one another and inevitably end up together. Both lean into the sharp intellectual wit along with the traits that define the characters and the play’s title. Ultimately, DeWitt’s feisty Lizzie breaks through the aloof, misanthropy of Johnson’s Mr. Darcy.
Hamill’s version mutes much of the particular charm of this classic novel, accenting the contrived nature of the plot. While some of the more problematic aspects are spotlighted – Wickham seducing the youngest Bennet daughter who is repeatedly noted as only being 14, as well as Charlotte’s obvious unhappiness as the wife of Mr. Collins – these issues become fodder for jokes.
Overall, the frolics of this Austen adaptation mostly work because the performances are playful and endearing. Frivolity dominates the proceedings, but Jane Austen probably would not have appreciated her tale of romantic love being reduced to amusing shenanigans.
The Raleigh Little Theatre production of Pride and Prejudice runs through October 2. For more information visit https://raleighlittletheatre.org/.
For a complete listing of Triangle theater events, visit Beltline to Broadway’s Event Calendar.