Pride@Prejudice: A Marvelous Mix of The Novel, the Movies, the Characters, and the Letters of Jane Austen at Chester Theatre Company
Chester Theatre Company is back for their 33rd season, and they follow a three-year hiatus with Pride@Prejudice, a play they put on in this same Western Mass boondocks village back in 2011.
This time, the playwright, Smith College Theater head Daniel Elihu Kramer, directs the show and adds updated twists in this fast-paced, funny juxtaposition of so many different time periods.
Kramer is working with a classic… the script is rich with impeccably accurate dialogue, and characters who lived in an era when people wore really interesting and beautiful clothes. Yes, the costumes here are impeccable too. Costume designer Christina Beam really nailed it. She created perfectly rendered 1800s garb, right down to the shoes and shoe coverings. Tails? They got ’em.
The set for Pride@Prejudice was sparse–simply five chairs and a backdrop where the lighting set the tone. Red, or green, depending on the mood and the voluminous dialogue, and pale yellow for those times when the lights go up because another cast member has thrown up their hands…they need Mrs. Bennet, (Candace Barrett Birk), to explain what Jane Austen meant by this or that.
And this is when the English accents were jettisoned for a familiar American twang. It was a hilarious aside, and again and again, we are asked, ‘what did she mean?’ Other times, characters narrate what the other characters are doing. Then they just blurt out an answer to a question that anyone watching would have. “Phaetons are light, open, four-wheel carriages”
Jane Austen sure knew how to write dialogue so it really says things…just right. The turns of phrases are marvelous, and the complicated dialogue required for proper 19th-century courtship is complex indeed. Delightfully so.
We are blessed with five–FIVE–equity actors here. Usually, we’re lucky to see that asterisk on a few main characters in a Western Massachusetts show. But when you see that the whole show is professional actors, that jumps it up a notch. Candace Barrett Birk leads the way as the elder, resident Austen expert, Claire Fort as the author plus other roles, Luke Hofmaier with his tall demeanor and energy, Brian Patterson as the man we come to love as Elizabeth changes her tune, and Marielle Young as Elizabeth, the last of the daughters to become betrothed.
And that’s part of why every character had a perfect London 1800s voice, and they also used their regular 2022 voices too. The show is a fast-paced compendium of ‘what is this book about?’
The book, “Pride and Prejudice,” obviously has huge fans and legions of people who just didn’t understand what was going on. Austen had lost them. Kramer knows this and has fun with it. One actor pipes up about something he found on Wikipedia. Then the cast drags out a huge white six-foot banner explaining the complex web of relationships in the novel.
Useful asides give us a little bit of context for the characters, such as “that would be $250,000 in today’s dollars” when the script explains how much a prospective husband was earning, 2000 pounds per year. Sometimes the actors whipped out their iPhones to get an answer to a particularly difficult question about the book. Another time Elizabeth becomes the college student who wrote a paper about the novel and wants someone to read it. No thanks.
The play also contained a good bit of history that I learned. Such as when a family is ‘entailed,’ it means there are no suitable male heirs to inherit the family’s riches, so all manner of shenanigans ensue to try and rectify it. It all makes one realize how vulnerable women used to be, and they were constantly faced with ‘marry him, or lose out on just about any wealth.’
At one point, even the author’s own engagement and subsequent decision to abandon him came up. You see, we all want to know more about the real Jane Austen, and why she wouldn’t agree to marry the rich friend of the family.
Not only does Chester Theater have an impressive lineup of four plays this summer… they have very important things. Like new bathrooms at the Chester Town Hall, and a parking lot across the street with lines. YES! They also have new ventilation, (yet for some reason masks are still required–ugh!)
Now if they bring in some halftime refreshments, it will be a triple play of amazeballs.
Pride@Prejudice, Chester Theatre Company, Town Hall, Chester Mass June 23-July 3, 2022