“P&P” equals love, laughter, and lunacy in Kate Hamill’s stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic, “Pride and Prejudice,” now playing at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
Directed by Amanda Dehnert, this “P&P” is fresh, festive, and funny, quite unlike any adaption of this Austen classic.
A terrific ensemble delivers Hamill’s riotous farcical romp in Regency-period garb. Her adaptation brings Austen’s subtle humor out of the closet, and director Dehnert takes it and runs — with irreverence, slapstick, and theatrical chaos. In the Rep’s “P&P,” the language is Austen-inspired, but the result is pure mischief. Five of the eight actors play multiple roles, three of them in drag.
Truly, it’s a challenge to tell who is having the most fun: the actors cavorting on stage or the audience watching them.
If you’re a Jane Austen purest — aka Austen Nerd — you’ll need to lighten up for this piece of mirth and mayhem. If you’re an Austen virgin, sit back and be seduced by this sassy Regency romp.
Meet the Bennet sisters: Jane is the eldest, age 22. She is the beauty of the neighborhood, as sincere as she is lovely. Elizabeth, age 20, is witty, intelligent, and independent, with a tendency to judge on first impressions. Middle sister Mary is plain and pious, eager to show off her less than stellar musical talent. The youngest sister, 15-year-old Lydia, is headstrong, frivolous, flirtatious — and loud.
Since the Bennet’s Longbourn estate is entailed to the male line, the girls will be penniless and homeless unless they marry into money. If not, they face a lifetime of seeking charity from relatives at best, or having to (Ugh!) work.
A devoted hypochondriac, Mrs. Bennet (the glorious Cheyenne Casebier) suffers from attacks of tremors and palpitations whenever things don’t go her way. Her main ambition and obsession in life is to marry her daughters off to wealthy men, their happiness of little concern to her. Casebier shines as hysteria-a-minute Mrs. Bennet. She is hilarious; her comedic timing is sheer genius.
Her husband, Mr. Bennet, a gracious gentleman of the landed gentry, deals with his wife and daughters by reading and ignoring them. If forced to engage, he responds with a dry and slightly sarcastic wit. Except to his favorite, Lizzy. Rajeev Varma endows wry Mr. Bennet with a flawless portrayal, as he attempts to ignore his wife’s wailings.
Life gets both hopeful and untoward for the Bennet tribe, when Jane the beauty falls in love with their new neighbor, the wealthy Mr. Bingley. (Rumor has it that Mr. Bingley’s wealth came from (gasp-gasp) trade.) He returns her Jane’s regard, but unfortunately, his vainglorious sister, Caroline, does not. Haughty and rude to those she considers her lessors, she fancies her brother’s wealthy friend, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, a handsome, proud Regency gentleman of status and wealth who’s ill at ease in social situations. He secretly fancies Lizzy, who misjudging his aloof decorum for prideful condescension, rebuffs his initial interest. And then there is Mr. Wickham, a dashing regiment soldier, but also a sly, charming dilettante and womanizing scoundrel. He too fancies Lizzy.
To make matters even more complicated, the unctuous toady Mr. Collins, the obsequious Bennet cousin and heir to the Bennett estate, arrives for a visit. And what a piece of work is he — a boorish, pompous, simpering, nincompoop of a parson. Mr. Collins thinks he’s doing a favor by offering for one of the Bennet sisters. He starts with Jane — she’s taken. Then he turns to Lizzy, who’s repulsed and hides from his advances.
Enter, Charlotte Lucas, Lizzy’s dearest friend. At 27 years, she’s over the hill, in Regency standards. When Lizzy passes on the pompous Mr. Collins, Charlotte snaps him up, willing to deal with his nincompoopery, rather than spend her life unmarried. Charlotte knows she’s marrying a fawning idiot, but hopefully, he will be out of the house most of the time. Rajeev Varma gives a subtle but comedic turn as Charlotte, His drag persona, deadpan facial expressions, and description when speaking of Mr. Collins are priceless.
Lizzy and Mr. Darcy are the heavies of the production; they contrast to the madcap mob of farcical characters. Kjerstine Anderson as Lizzy is supposedly a young woman of great intelligence, wit, and independence. But why put glasses on her? It tends to make the talented Anderson look dumpy, especially when she slouches her shoulders in some of the scenes with the dapper Kenajuan Bentley, as Mr. Darcy.
But when it comes to the big declaration-of-love scene between Lizzy and Mr. Darcy, they’re spot on. He overcomes his pride, and she overcomes her prejudice.
Trick Danneker, as Mary in drag, is one of many reasons to see this production. Obviously the least attractive Bennet sister, Mary, may have been switched at birth. From her first cough, she becomes an audience favorite. A beanpole, sad-sack, Mary towers over her sisters by almost two feet. She lacks grace and polish and clomps about like a grounded crow. But every time she’s onstage, laughter abounds. This critic barely resisted the urge to run onstage and give her a hug — oops, him.
When the talented Danneker isn’t playing Mary, he trades his frock for a tailcoat and becomes the wealthy and likeable Mr. Bingley, whose good nature resembles a favorite doggie. You almost expect him to sit up and bark with good boy happiness at any moment. One of his favorite pastimes is playing with a ball. sHOHis only problem? He’s easily manipulated by almost everyone.
Brandon O'Neill portrays three Austen characters — Mr. Wickham, Miss Bingley, and Mr. Collins — and brilliantly captures the essence of each with a wide array of gestures and movements. But as Mr. Collins, O’Neill is unparalleled. With the Bennet sisters, he oozes ingratiating charm, which repulses them. And when he speaks of his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh — which he does most of the time, he genuflects with his arms spread wide as if he’s addressing the Almighty.
Lady Catherine, a volatile creature of condescension, claims her shy daughter is to marry Mr. Darcy, who is her nephew. As Miss de Bourgh, Emily Chisholm is garbed in all white, from head to toes, including a Burka-like hat, veil, and parasol. She doesn’t speak, well, at least not in words. She squeaks in various octaves, and if you didn’t know better, you might think she wandered off the set of “Star Wars.”
Chisholm also doubles as Jane, the oldest Bennet sister with just the right amount of sweetness, sincerity, and occasional silliness. Hana Lass doubles up as willful and wild Lydia Bennet and the arrogant Lady Catherine de Bourgh, whose personality resembles an alligator, ready to clamp her jaws and devours anyone who dares disagree with her.
Dehnert brilliantly directs the actors’ wild shenanigans with a mash-up of pop culture and the do’s-and-do not’s of Regency propriety. You’ll hear Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” as well as the 1955 standard “Unchained Melody,” and other pop hits. Bells ring, a foghorn blasts a military drill, a disco balls spins over wild dancing, and winged-fairies flutter onstage, also with bells. For a rainstorm effect, an actor pours a bucket of water over Lizzy.
John McDermott’s cluttered set design isn’t the typical Regency drawing room replete with uncomfortable divans, but there is a handsome pianoforte, covered with an abundance of props. Note: The space underneath also serves as a place to hide.
Chortle, guffaw, roar, or giggle. You’re bound to do one or all with this deliciously mischievous production.
The adaptation is reminiscent of Hollywood’s vintage screwball comedies, like “Bringing up Baby” and “My Man Godfrey.” Current attempts don’t compare. So this critic has a message for film producers; Hire Kate Hamill to write one.
As Jane Austen penned in “P&P,” “I dearly love a laugh ... Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.” Thanks to Seattle Rep. we all can.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that this critic dearly loved the production.
“Pride and Prejudice” runs through Oct. 29 at Seattle Repertory Theatre's Bagley Wright Theatre, Tuesday through Sunday. Tickets start at $17 and are available by calling the Seattle Repertory Theatre Box Office at (206) 443-2222 or toll-free at (877) 900-9285, or online at seattlerep.org