In Jane Austen's much-loved novel of manners, "Pride and Prejudice," love and marriage may not go together like a horse and carriage. But the new stage adaptation by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan that opened Saturday at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival positively moves at a canter. It sparkles and enthralls and is delightfully played out in a charming, minimalist production with emphasis on dancing and music.
It is exquisitely directed by Libby Appel. As she observes, the play is "really about every character's story, and on stage, those stories can weave together and flow from moment to moment in a theatrical and inviting form."
On every level, it is a beautiful presentation, from William Bloodgood's elegant scenic design with its chandeliers and clever surprise to the gorgeous gowns by costume designer Mara Blumenfeld to the choreography of Art Manke, with its swirling dances and almost hypnotic rhythmic hand clapping, just as if the participants were indeed having a ball.
Even before the play begins, members of the cast, including the five Bennet sisters, gather on the stage while the playgoers are admonished to turn off their cell phones — a voice from on high that particularly disconcerts Lydia, the youngest Bennet. It is an amusing anachronism.
If marriages are made in heaven, what are the chances the five Bennet sisters — Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia in order of seniority — will find a hubby in Hertfordshire, not far from London? And will they marry well and marry wealth? Such are the concerns of their mother, the flighty Mrs. Bennet (Judith-Marie Bergan). Besides, there is competition. Her neighbor, Lady Lucas (Linda Alper) has a 27-year-old unmarried daughter, Charlotte (Lisa McCormick), who is fearful she will become an old maid.
It happens that a nearby estate, Netherfield, is rented by a certain Charles Bingley (newcomer Christian Barillas), easy-going and well-heeled, who visits the Bennets, accompanied by his friend Mr. Darcy (Elijah Alexander), a not-at-all convivial man but moneyed, a demon for decorum, and highly intelligent. He cares not for card games such as piquet and whist; nor does he deign to dance.
Bingley is enraptured by 22-year-old Jane (Nell Geisslinger), whereas Darcy and 20-year-old Elizabeth (newcomer Kate Hurster) withdraw from one another out of antagonism. She cannot abide his arrogance and, anyway, she is attracted to George Wickham, a young military officer (John Tufts), though she soon learns that he is a wastrel and liar, biting the hand that feeds him. He runs off with the wild and flirty 15-year-old Lydia (Susannah Flood) and is paid by Darcy to marry her and so avert a social scandal. This causes Elizabeth to think more kindly of Darcy. They share lingering looks and see each other in a more acceptable light.
Seventeen-year-old Kitty (Kimbre Lancaster, 2010 Rex Rabold Fellow) is as fractious as her sister Lydia, while 18-year-old Mary (Christine Albright) is not caught up in the marriage fervor, but is bookish and likes to be regarded as accomplished and to show off her prowess at the piano.
One of the most enjoyable interludes involves Mr. Collins (James Newcomb). who is Mr. Bennet's cousin and a clergyman. He arrives on the scene to find a wife and pitches his woo to Elizabeth, only to be rejected. So he turns to Charlotte Lucas, who accepts his offer, much to Mrs. Bennet's chagrin. The fly in the ointment is that under the practice of so-called "entailment," Collins is in line to inherit Mr. Bennet's estate. Newcomb is a delight.
There is an entertaining clash of wills between Elizabeth and the domineering Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Demetra Pittman), who is Darcy's aunt and Collins' patron. Elizabeth will have none of her imperious impertinence, refusing to say whether she has had an offer of marriage from de Bourgh's nephew.
Bergan is wonderfully funny in the outpouring of her frustration, fluster and frantic antics as Mrs. Bennet, and it is good to see Mark Murphey as her husband, after 27 seasons at OSF, still earning the laughs. Hurster makes a strong impression as Elizabeth, being pretty and composed, and Flood as the irresponsible Lydia merits high praise.
Robert Miller is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at email@example.com.