Pride and Prejudice at Pittsburgh Public Theater is a “wholly, gloriously theatrical event”

By October 10, 2018 October 12th, 2018 No Comments

Emma Mercier, Simone Recasner and Ashley Bufkin in Pride and Prejudice at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. (Photo: Michael Henninger)

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that classic works of literature are not necessarily met with similar acclaim when translated to other art forms. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has been, since it’s 1813 debut, adapted into several stage versions, a few movies, a couple of musicals and even an opera … none of which would you call huge successes. (The two BBC TV outings did much better.)

So here comes the Pittsburgh Public Theater with a version by Kate Hamill which recently garnered strong notices in New York. Probably the wisest thing Hamill does is get rid of Austen almost entirely – and I say that as one of the region’s more fervid Janeites.

The conundrum is that true-to-the-source-material stage adaptations of Pride and Prejudice could result in hidebound, sonorous affairs where actors are basically reading the book from the stage.

But Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice, in tandem with Desdemona Chiang’s direction at the Public, is a wholly, and gloriously, theatrical event. Eight actors turn the joint into a playground. With Hamill’s vision and Chiang’s guidance, they make this Regency novel about love and money an evening of hootin’, hollerin’ fun.

Pride and Prejudice continues through October 28. Pittsburgh Public Theater, Downtown. 412-316-1600.

Our cast: Elena Alexandratos, Ashley Bufkin, Ryan Garbayo, Ashton Heyl, Emma Mercier, Simone Recasner, Chris Richards and Andrew William Smith; I may be wrong but they seem to be having the time of their lives and the simple joy of performance is instantly communicated to the audience.

Hamill’s craft for telescoping events, transposing scenes and combining characters is informed with cleverness and economy, i.e., there’s only four sisters here, Charlotte fills the dramaturgical function of Col. Fitzwilliam, Lady Catherine carries the plot-advancing chores of Mrs. Reynolds. It feels as if, years ago, someone told Hamill the story of Pride and Prejudice and she’s now using theater to retell what she remembers. Endlessly employing expressly theatrical conventions and highly amusing sleight-of-hand, this version could only ever happen on stage.

But people being what they are, namely carping bitches, there might be a few quibbles. If you are, just as an example, some sort of sad emotional shut-in who reads Austen’s works at least once a year, and who also has an extensive DVD collection of screen adaptations queued up next to the TV (uh … I’m asking for a friend), then you might bridle a bit at calling this Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. A truer title might by Pride and Prejudice: A Fantasia on Austen Plot Points Reimagined by Kate Hamill.

P&P is set in a world of insanely rigid social laws and the crackle of the book is how her characters work through all of that to achieve their goals. This free-wheeling adaptation doesn’t even attempt to provide context, let alone example, of the realities of these lives. This version could very easily be set today … which, perhaps, may be Hamill’s point, but it’s not nearly as compelling.

That Hamill would redeem Mr. and Mrs. Bennett at the play’s finish, instead of leaving them to wallow in their faults as Austen does, just proves we live in an age cosseted by television’s manufactured happy endings.

I didn’t mind Hamill making up dialogue out of whole cloth. I also don’t mind when she has her characters speak their subtext out loud; it’s less interesting than Austen’s sub-rosa subterfuge, but it’s Hamill’s play and she can write what she wants.

What did bother me, a great deal, is when Hamill tosses away Austen’s work and substitutes her own. There’s two extraordinary scenes in the novel – when Lizzie rejects Darcy and when Lady Catherine visits Longbourn – instances where the English language reaches a zenith; Hamill has trashed Austen’s dialogue and intent in favor of her own. It is not too insulting to note that in such head-to-head competition Hamill doesn’t stand a chance. What writer could?

But going back to my original point; a “true” Austen adaptation could have been deadly, Hamill’s is anything but. And, too, if you’re not one of the pathetic people alluded to above and haven’t obsessed over the novel (or stifling a few qualms if you have), the Public Theater’s Pride and Prejudice is a theatrical delight.

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