Thursday 4 February 2016

Pride & Prejudice captures Austen remarkably !

Quicky version

You have to start at the beginning, at the very first line Jane Austen wrote as the opener to her novel then-named First Impressions that a decade later would publish as Pride and Prejudice. "It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Austen's tongue had to be lodged squarely in her cheek when she wrote that in 1799. Because what she surely meant by way of accurate reflection on how matrimonial transactions worked in her life and times would read thus : "It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of no money must be in want of a husband with a good fortune." But the irony infecting Austen's nuanced voice is what makes her original sentence vastly more appealing and whimsical -- her "playfulness" to use Austen's own descriptor -- than my prosaic and boring re-write.

For its part, the Arts Club production of this adaptation by Victoria playwright Janet Munsil is cheeky, bright, clever, snappy, original, silly, fun, zippy -- downright brilliantly conceived, well cast and embracingly performed. Artistic Director Bill Millerd claims that this 576th production of ACT "is one of the largest and most lavish plays we have produced". Yes, lavish in the senses of unstinted, wild and abundant, not lavish to mean heavy droopy Regency-era furniture, rugs, brocaded drapes and stuffed shirts. 

And as for doubters who are progressive, even vigorous feminists I know are fans of the Edwardian dramedy Downton Abbey with all its pomp, circumstance and manorisms. Similarly in this piece from 100 years earlier still : snobs and their pretensions have always intrigued democrats because we see them through more egalitarian prisms. We laugh both with them and at them. Just like Jane Austen herself did so wistfully and smartly with her waspish zingers at her society's foibles.

Kudos! and Huzzahs! to all the creative talent so vigorously and plentifully on display at The Stanley.
Wordy version

From the footlights : Confession. I have never read Pride and Prejudice. Thus only through research did I discover that the Bennet family comprises Dad, Mom and five sibling sisters. The girls are all of marrying age in that time and place. Mom is fixed in the thought they each must secure marriage commodity rights right smartly for their future well-being. The play begins at the family's modest estate of Longbourn. A certain Charles Bingley has arrived to rent the nearby estate of Netherfield. He has his good friend with him, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, visiting from the grounds of his princely principality called Pemberley some three days' carriage ride to the north. (In today's world Darcy's wealth would number some $15 million -vs- poor Mr. Bingley's net worth of about only half that.)

Dad Bennet thinks second daughter Elizabeth would make a fine catch, while Mom is certain eldest and prettiest daughter Jane might make the better chattel at market. When they all meet, Darcy presents to Lizzie as vain and abrupt and haughty (the Pride piece) and she takes an instant dislike to him (the Prejudice piece).

Throw in the following : cousin Collins who will eventually inherit the Bennet property -- he's a goof and a boor and a bit of a local joke, but he has friends in high places. Darcy's aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh who thinks no one's sufficiently snotty to meet her standards. A randy young soldier named Wickham who catches young sister Lydia's eye and more. Bingley's snobby sister Caroline. Lizzie's friend Charlotte Lucas whom Mom worries is going to snag Bingley away from any grasping Bennet finger. Oh and add one or two others just for the heck of it -- some 17 actors in all including eight newbies in their first Stanley Theatre ACT outing.

With merry and ironic twists and turns, there's an "all's well that ends well" outcome and feel to the storyline that Jane Austen wanted to tell. In a letter to her niece Fanny in 1814 she wrote : "Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection." Or, similarly, as she is quoted elsewhere : "Nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without love, bound to one, and preferring another." Ironic perhaps, Austen herself never married before she died at just 41 years of age.

How it's all put together : Simple crisp elegance is how I would describe Director Sarah Rodgers' delivery of Janet Munsil's script. Between them what they realized is that they must capture the core of Austen -- whose voice through dialogue and narration in her book is what makes her so prominent a literary force -- these qualities are what make P&P either the second or the fourth most favourite English novel of all time, depending on your factoid source. And these qualities need to be acted out. 

So. Marry rapid-fire clever dialogue with Choreographer Julie Tomaino's combination playground frivolity / drill team precision footwork routines for the cast, and what you get is 123 minutes of acting that never slows or abates in its energy and whim and delight.

No question the "premise" of P&P grates. Women positioning themselves to be the men's selected choices in the marriage marketplace. But still, Jane Austen delivers a sling of righteous one-liners, some of which were borderline scandalous for fin de siecle 1799, others just clever repartee that would work in any era :

"We must be blind to the nonsense and folly of others."

"Few men have heart enough to fall in love without encouragement."

"Tease at him, laugh at him, you must know his weaknesses."

"I am not a respectable female."

"My courage always rises with every attempt to provoke me."

"Why did we come here -- if only I had my headache like I'd planned!"

"It is my duty to stand by my husband even when he is narrow-minded and foolish."

"I do not think too little can be said of your marriage."

"The purpose of our lives is to make sport for our neighbours." 

Production values of note : Sparse minimalist but wholly effective staging. Oversize impressionist paintings across the upstage scrim and 35 X 50" paintings on wheeled dollies with individual scenes to tell us we're in the country; we're looking at one estate or another; we're indoors at Pemberley.

Furniture for the set is wheeled in by the actors in grey-light dimness, the primary technique a kind of military march of the big furniture lineally across the upstage scrim and then briskly brought forward and plopped precisely mid-stage where it belongs. Most delightful of all was the actors' dervish whirling of the armchairs up, down over and around each time before the cast set them around the appointed table.

And all the while downstage left, Daniel Deorksen on guitar and Sarah Donald on violin providing delightful stringed accompaniment to the merriment on stage.

Costume Designer Christine Reimer aced it throughout. The "lesser wealthies" the Bennets had functional village dress but managed rich and subtle ball-gowns for the dances. Lady Catherine's dowager queen outfits were supreme. Given the purposely minimal stage stuff, the costumes hit the eye strikingly. Nice! pay-off.

Acting pin-spots :  To this viewer's eye, one starts with veteran Scott Bellis as the insipid cousin Mr. Collins. Every moment he is on stage he simply delights with his wimpy grating boffo pastor routine slathering after Lizzie, to no avail. And then marries the security-conscious, frigid Charlotte Lucas (Georgia Beaty), Lizzie's BFF.

But a mere 1/2 step behind with her constant breathlessness and hypochondria -- all her "tremblings, flutterings, spasms, beatings of the heart" -- would be Katey Wright as Mrs. Bennet, nicely foiled by the deadpan irony of husband Mr., yet another rich outing by Vancouver favourite David Marr.

Naomi Wright as Elizabeth (Lizzie, Eliza), Jane Austen's protagonist, delivered breadth and insight into her character's role. She was every bit of "obstinate, headstrong, impudent and insolent" that Shirley Broderick as Lady Catherine accused her of, wonderfully, with all those pointed thumps of her octogenarian cane to punctuate each adjective, each pejorative.

As Mr. Darcy, Eric Craig was just the right mix of arrogant bully and semi-soft-hearted appreciator of Lizzie's wit and and snipes. (And gotta say, I have never witnessed two more compelling end-of-show kisses than Craig and Wright gave each other. Wowza !)

Both Daryl King as Charles Bingley and Kaitlin Williams as his love Jane Bennet charmed oh-so-sweetly, while Amanda Lisman as sister Caroline Bingley was a snob caricature writ large. 

Of the newcomers, Raylene Harewood as Lydia and Kayla Deorksen as Kitty, the two playful younger sisters scampered and skipped and romped around the stage wonderfully. Delightful turns not only by them but by all the young performers, no question.

And to this eye it was precisely all the scampering and skipping and romping across the stage in-&-out, up-&-down, over-&-back throughout the night that is the best tribute of all to Director Rodgers and Choreographer Tomaino and, of course, to the actors themselves. For it was this feature perhaps more than any other that made the show so entertaining from Moment #1 to Moment #End.

Who gonna like : Normally I do not exude quite as much enthusiasm for a show as I have for this one. Frankly I went to The Stanley a bit of a skeptic how Jane Austen could appeal to me, a semi-quasi-feminist in 2016. [Or given the transcendence of transgender folk, maybe we truly are in a post-feminist epoch. But I am utterly insufficient about where such stuff sits these days.] 

This is the point : it is precisely the joyful abandon with Austen's novel that Janet Munsil captures in her script while not forfeiting any of the key plot or character elements that are so enticing. Along with the directing / choreography matched to the minimalist set and props. 

Said it above, will end by saying it again :  This adaptation by Victoria playwright Janet Munsil is cheeky, bright, clever, snappy, original, silly, fun, zippy -- downright brilliantly conceived, well cast and embracingly performed. Artistic Director Bill Millerd claims that this 576th production of ACT "is one of the largest and most lavish plays we have produced". Yes, lavish in the senses of unstinted, wild and abundant.  

No question. Of the 130 or so productions I've seen in the last four years, ACT's P&P ranks easily among my top five (and j.s.y.k. the 7 Tyrants' production of Mozart & Salieri remains #1 on my list).

Again : Kudos! and Huzzahs! to all the creative talent so vigorously and plentifully on display at The Stanley. 

Go. See. This.

Particulars :  Script by Janet Munsil based on the novel by Jane Austen.  At ACT's Stanley Industrial Alliance Theatre on Granville.  Run-time 150 minutes including intermission.  On through February 28th.  Schedule information & tickets via or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director Sarah Rodgers.  Choreographer Julie Tomaino.  Set Designer Alison Green.  Costume Designer Christine Reimer.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Sound Designer Daniel Deorksen. Production Dramaturg Veronique West. Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.  Assistant Stage Manager Ronaye Haynes.  Apprentice Stage Manager Koh McRadu.  Assistants to the Director, Alen Dominguez & Laura McLean.

Performers :  Yoshie Bancroft (Georgiana Darcy).  Paul Barton (Mr. Wickham).  Georgia Beaty (Charlotte Lucas).  Scott Bellis (Mr. Collins / Mrs. Reynolds).  Shirley Broderick (Lady Catherine de Bourgh).  Eric Craig (Mr. Darcy).  Daniel Deorksen (Mr. Gardiner).  Kayla Deorksen (Kitty Bennet).  Sarah Donald (Mrs. Gardiner).  Raylene Harewood (Lydia Bennet).  Daryl King (Charles Bingley).  Amanda Lisman (Caroline Bingley).  David Marr (Mr. Bennet).  Sarah Roa (Mary Bennet).  Kaitlin Williams (Jane Bennet).  Katey Wright (Mrs. Bennet).  Naomi Wright (Elizabeth 'Lizzie' Bennet).  


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