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