Yes, as the man behind me said as colorful lights flashed and the cast of 4th Wall Theatre Company’s Pride and Prejudice danced and blew copious amounts of bubbles to Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, it is ridiculous. As is playwright Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
The self-professed Janeite has clearly had a lot of fun reimagining Austen’s classic work with all manner of wackiness thrown in, while retaining the story at its heart. And, if you skipped this one in high school English class, the story is pretty simple. The Bennet family matriarch is frantic to ensure her four daughters marry (for those of you who didn’t skip this one in school, it’s Kitty who’s the odd sister out). Luckily, two potential suitors enter the picture. (Really it’s three, but if the Bennet girls don’t take Collins seriously why should we.) While oldest sister Jane is quickly taken with one Mr. Bingley, her younger sister Lizzy finds herself in a love/hate (mostly hate) tug-of-war with one Mr. Darcy. I don’t think I have to tell you how it goes from here. Austen essentially invented the romcom.
But this does nothing to prepare you for Hamill’s adaptation, helmed here with such skill from director Kim Tobin-Lehl. Tobin-Lehl has controlled the chaos on stage – including, but not limited to, musical interludes with songs from not only Gaga but the Bee Gees and Beyoncé, character doubling, continuous movement both sped up and slowed down, and, simply, a lot of racket – to create a brisk, highly energetic production that moves with the singular grace of a well-trained dancer. With a little help from choreographer Krissy Richmond, no doubt. And at the heart of the production is Amy Mire as Lizzy Bennet.
When Mire delivers Lizzy’s screeds on marriage and the game of love, she brilliantly captures the self-confident, self-assured (to a fault) nature of the character. But it’s distracting how in so many scenes she turns into a stuttering, neurotic mess. Lizzy is a condescending mess, but its manifestation is so on-the-nose it’s off-putting. Her chemistry, however, with Justin Doran’s Darcy is on point.
Doran’s Darcy would fit comfortable in any adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. He is poised and commanding, yet adorable (if reluctant) when admitting to being smitten with the marriage-averse Lizzy, the flip side of a coin she shares with Mrs. Bennet.
Lehl is as solid a presence on stage as he is a non-presence in the Bennet household, a worn figure hiding behind a newspaper steadfastly refusing to participate in Mrs. Bennet’s reindeer games. Lehl doubles as Charlotte Lucas, playing the role so earnestly that it’s hard to believe both roles are played by the same man.
Leslie Lenert is perfectly cast as the likeably inoffensive sister Jane, and Lenert also takes a turn as Miss De Bourgh, who is sickly, veiled and Swedish Chef-like in speech. Rachael Logue’s childish Lydia is as playful as she is frustrating, with Logue balancing her character well, especially in the second act in one of the play’s most serious scenes. Logue gets the chance to work the room as Lydia, and then gets a chance to look down her nose at everyone as the snooty Lady Catherine. And then there’s Mary. Poor, locked-in-a-closet Mary, played by Philip Hays.
Hays plays a creep, Mr. Wickham; a puppy-trapped-in-a-man’s-body, Mr. Bingley; and Mary Bennet, his most standout character. Very much unlike her sisters, and lacking everything from looks to a personality according to her mother, a lot of humor is derived from Mary, even when she’s played by a standing candelabra.
Mary is a role played by a man, much like Lehl’s turn as Charlotte Lucas and Jeff McMorrough’s as Miss Bingley, and early on I was afraid this would be gimmicky, a lazy way to get extra cheap laughs. It course-corrects, and for much of the production Tobin-Lehl manages to keep it from feeling lazy, but there’s still something underneath that’s bothersome. The most successful recurring joke in the entire production is a scream at the sight of Mary. Mary is less attractive than her sisters. Mary not only has darker hair than her sisters and wears bulkier dark clothes, she’s played by a man. Are her mannish features part of what makes her unattractive? Intentional or not, is it playing into transmisogynist tropes? Either way, it bothers me during what is a good, relatively lighthearted production.
And the production as a whole is good. Ryan McGettigan’s set and Tina Montgomery’s props provide a great space for the actors. The action is set against a backdrop of framed paintings, era-evoking portraits and pastoral scenes. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling, including over the audience, creating an almost immersive atmosphere, especially as the performers interact with audience members in the front and occasionally climb up the stairs, delving in even further. Some good gags are built around the standing candelabra that subs for Mary and the busts that sub for an assortment of other non-characters. And one particularly good feature is how they achieved the spilled ink. Complementing the environment are Paige A. Wilson’s Regency-appropriate costumes, with high empire waists, spencer jackets, and bonnets all making appearances. Christina Giannelli’s lighting designs are striking as are the sound design choices from Robert Meek and Yezminne Zepeda.
On a scale of Pride and Prejudice adaptations, 4th Wall’s production is right between Bridget Jones’s Diary and Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It’s fun and fresh, a new take that’s true to the spirit of Jane Austen with a delightful irreverence sure to please audiences.
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays and December 17 and 3 p.m. Sundays at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street. Through December 22. For more information, call 832-786-1849 or visit 4thwalltheatreco.com.