Theatre Review: Pride and Prejudice at Hazel Robinson Amphitheater

From left, Devyn Ray, Ellen Soderberg, Trinity Smith Keel and Karl Knierim. Photo by Tommy Propest

There’s something about a play at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater that reflects the origins of the art form. Even when ominous clouds pass over, carrying threats of rain, everyone unifies, leaving their fate up to the theater gods (instead of making a mad dash for the parking lot). Outside under the stars seems a perfect fit for Jane Austen’s classic romance, Pride and Prejudice, onstage through Saturday, Sept. 24.

This world premiere of the enduring coming-of-age story is adapted for the stage by Gregory Roberts-Gassler. Set in late 18th century England, the five Bennet sisters, living in their pretty but lower-class country home, are soon to be married off to eligible suitors. This version focuses less on the push-pull relationship of Elizabeth (played by Trinity Smith Keel) and rich Mr. Darcy (played by Ellen Soderberg). That’s an intriguing choice, as it accentuates the subplots of the other characters. Roberts-Gassler does a fine job whittling down the novel of manners to a concise stage adaptation.

Director Dusty McKeelan, whose heart’s in the right place, has inadvertently staged two conflicting directions here that fight against each other — traditional version vs. modern statement piece. Inspired by House Bill 2, McKeelan implemented gender-blind casting in stance of LGBTQ rights. There’s a problem, though. What we see before us is artistic zeitgeist, and the beautiful story gets pixelated. Actors perform in dresses with unshaven faces, yet actresses attempt to look totally masculine. It’s confusing and distracting and, sadly, the intended message gets lost.

However, having Darcy played androgynously is audacious and clever. We recognize the internal struggle implemented by Soderberg throughout the majority of the production, but it never comes to fruition. In the end, are we meant to see the uncertain disconnect between Elizabeth and Darcy? This was unclear, as there seemed to be a fearful connection between the two leads and not even a daring kiss was present.

In the traditional sense, Keel is well suited as the rebellious Elizabeth. She was so wonderful in Montford Park Player’s The Dark Lady of the Sonnets & The Upstart Crow. It’s a shame this production wasn’t shifted to be a tailor-made vehicle for her extraordinary talent. But a truly great actress always manages to impress, and she does just that — most notably when she silently reads Darcy’s heartbreaking letter. McKeelan’s blocking, especially in this scene, is effective.

The big cast gallantly stands behind this interpretation and, as a result, there are several standouts. Devyn Ray as Charlotte Lucas is fascinating to watch. Ray and Keel have impeccable chemistry together. She’s an actress to keep your eye on, as is rising starlet Savannah Stone as Kitty Bennet. Joan Reid Owens does a remarkable job portraying Wickham; Mary Katherine O’Donnell is noteworthy as Jane Bennet. The evident stage presence of Kathy O’Conner as Mr. Bennet made it possible to overlook an incongruous dialect and curious burgundy-wine hair, as she thankfully attempted to bridge the production’s gap between statement piece and reality. Finally, the irresistible, over-the-top performance of Laura Farmer as the peculiar Mr. Collins nabbed the most laughter. It’s farcical but somehow works.

MPP admirably allows its directors the freedom of experimentation. This is when new artistry in theater is born and, therefore, Pride and Prejudice is worth supporting. As the evening sun sets upon this production and the last of the summer fireflies began to rise, we’re truly reminded of a Jane Austen romance.

WHAT: Pride and Prejudice
WHERE: Hazel Robinson Amphitheater, 92 Gay St., montfordparkplayers.org
WHEN: Through Saturday, Sept. 24. Friday-Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Free

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About Kai Elijah Hamilton
Kai Elijah Hamilton was born and raised in Western North Carolina. A poet, screenwriter and playwright, he is also a published film and theater critic. Hamilton is a creative individual with a wide range of talents and interests. He is an Award Winning Actor (Tom in "The Glass Menagerie") and Director ("A Raisin In The Sun"). He previously served as Artistic Director at Hendersonville Little Theatre and has a B.A. in theater and film from Western Carolina University. In 2016, Hamilton's play "The Sleepwalker" won a spot in the first annual Asheville National 10-Minute Play Festival by NYS3. His play "Blackberry Winter" was a finalist in the elite Strawberry One-Act Festival in NYC winning Best Short Film/Video Diary. Hamilton is also the author of the full-length southern-gothic play "Dry Weather Wind" which has been called "Important. Relevant to the issues in today's time, and beautifully written..."

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5 thoughts on “Theatre Review: Pride and Prejudice at Hazel Robinson Amphitheater

  1. Theatre Lover

    The Germans had term for this kind of directorial approach, popular in the late 20th century: Regietheater, “when the director imposed an artistic vision on a play or in more extreme cases simply used a play as raw material to make an almost totally independent dramatic creation.” It will be interesting to see if Asheville audiences take to this radical approach. Maybe some viewers could comment.

  2. Jack B Nimble

    “What we see before us is an artistic zeitgeist”? Come on, Mtnx. Find someone who can write.
    This production was boring, like all of Montford’s productions, but it wasn’t nearly as embarrassing as some of the others. Mary Katherine O’Donnell absolutely redeemed herself from her last performance in the single most cringe-worthy moment in Measure for Measure, here getting to be delightful and bubbly – not characteristics traditionally appropriate to Jane Bennett, of course, but a real pleasure to watch. The mis-guided cross-casting (NOT gender-blind casting) may not have remotely hinted at the director’s concept, but did inject moments of fun into what otherwise would have been an entirely tedious evening. The stage was used better than in the vast majority of Montford productions, with only one scene set faaaaaaaar stage right where the actors couldn’t be heard (thanks in part to Artistic Director Scott Keel’s usual overbearing use of “atmospheric” music – someone please explain to him that he is not working on films?!?!) and where the single lighting instrument (a HUGE, hard-edged par-can) just barely caught the action in its periphery, while brilliantly illuminating a nearby mountain laurel and bit of lawn.
    Alexandra McPherson was a regal delight as Lady Catherine deBurgh, even if she was not given enough material to truly define her character (and was upstaged by a needless puke bucket), and Kathy O’Connor’s Mr. Bennett was fascinating and fun. Danielle King’s Lydia Bennett was effervescent and convincing, while Ellen Soderberg’s Darcy was a little unfortunately soft-spoken, but regal. It was easy to see how she would have excelled at the role in a smaller venue.
    The real crime here was committed by director Dusty McKeelan, who, clearly no fan of the original material, allowed ridiculous hijinks to steal focus from necessary conversations that were staged to be as boring as possible. In the most egregious example, Laura Farmer (Mr. Collins) shamelessly stole the scene where Lizzie and Wickham meet, preventing the audience from hearing or caring about any of that conversation. Why someone with no interest in the original material was given this play to direct is a mystery; why it was overlaid with a high-minded but poorly executed Concept is another; but Montford, unintentionally, is a Theatre of Mystery, from whom we come to expect the inexplicable.

    • Theatre Lover

      Thanks for more insight into how this highly conceptualized approach worked . . or, for you, didn’t work. Other viewpoints to enlighten a theatre lover who didn’t see this production? The description of the casting made it sound unappealing.

    • Alabaster

      Jack B Nimble strikes again! This is the third hit and run I’ve read by you in the comments of theatre reviews. The first two being your scathing reviews of Upstart Crow and Death of a Salesman. I’m curious if you have seen any productions in town that you have enjoyed? Also, while you make some valid points you come across as bitter and your attacks often seem vitriolic and personal as if you have some vendetta against particular persons you critique. Has it occurred to you that your critiques might be more constructive if you weren’t so biting and loathsome in your delivery?

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