Shakespeare meets Austen in Santa Cruz Shakespeare buoyant season opener, Pride And Prejudice
Adventures in writing with Lisa Jensen, Author, Columnist and Film Critic
Published Wednesday, July 17, 2019
The 2019 Santa Cruz Shakespeare season arrived this week with bells on — literally. The bell-ringing motif (as in for whom the bell tolls) recurs throughout the season-opening production of Pride and Prejudice, in which a man and woman who should be perfectly matched find their twin aversions to marriage and each other challenged when the bells of attraction begin to toll for them.
Astute playgoers will notice that Pride and Prejudice was not actually written by Will Shakespeare. But contemporary playwright Kate Hamill’s 2017 stage adaptation of the beloved Jane Austen novel is the perfect vehicle for launching the company’s summer season on a note of crowd-pleasing goodwill — everybody knows the story, there’s none of that pesky Elizabethan dialogue to contend with, and a mood of buoyant fun persists throughout.
In Hamill’s version, there are only four Bennett sisters, only three of them anatomically correct. (The show’s running gag has the eight-person cast scurrying around to cover all 14 roles, whether or not the genders match up — which fits right in with the SCS commitment to non-traditional casting.)
The eldest, prettiest, and most compliant sister is Jane (Karen Peakes). Lizzy (the excellent Allie Pratt), the surrogate for author Austen’s more trenchant social commentary, is the clever observer who pokes fun at human folly, especially the matrimonial maneuverings of the girls’ dizzy mother, Mrs. Bennett (Carol Halstead), who is determined to pair up her daughters with suitably wealthy husbands. While Mama relentlessly herds her daughters into the paths of incoming bachelors, Lizzy declares that matrimony is a game she doesn’t want to win.
Lizzy’s ally in common sense is her patient, irascible father, Mr. Bennett (the always wonderful Allen Gilmore), who tries to steer clear of his wife’s schemes. Gilmore also manages a neat about-face as Charlotte, Lizzy’s cheerfully gossipy, yet practical-minded best friend.
Lydia, the youngest and most wayward sister, is played with bratty exuberance by Madison Pulllins, who switches gears later to play imperious dowager Lady Catherine de Bourgh. (With Peakes hilariously incomprehensible as her veiled spinster daughter.)
As the bookish sister, Mary, who’s not so integral to the plot, Landon Hawkins isn’t asked to do much but look surly and elicit cries (or shrieks) of alarm every time anyone else in the cast turns to face him. But he’s perfectly cast as the male ingenue, fresh-faced Mr. Bingley, who comes courting Jane.
With his tremendous presence and noble bearing, Lindsay Smiling is terrific in the pivotal role of Mr. Darcy, Bingley’s friend. A serious, honorable man with absolutely no gift for small talk or silliness, we can see his discomfort whenever he’s beset by social butterflies — like the Bennett females — which Lizzy mistakes for arrogance.
Of course, they’re a perfect match for each other in wit and ironic temperament, if only they could figure it out. Smiling makes the war between Darcy’s head and heart so palpable, and Pratt’s Lizzy is so wryly caustic beneath her chipper demeanor that we wish playwright Hamill had written an extra scene or two for just the two of them, prowling around each other in their lively, eccentric mating dance.
The show’s most tireless chameleon is Ian Merrill Peakes, who plays Mr. Bingley’s snobbish, tippling sister, as well as the dashing officer and scoundrel, Wickham. But it’s in his supporting role as the deliciously gauche and creaky pastor, Mr. Collins, that Peakes steals the show, with his twisted, laborious gait and riotously funny vocal inflections.
Director Paul Mullins, who made such a frantic, hilarious, knockabout farce out of The 39 Steps a couple of seasons ago, works in a more subtle hue here, although the laughs are set up and delivered with the same precision. Dipu Gupta’s uncluttered set grouping vintage chairs around a piano, with a suggestion of Doric columns, and B. Modern’s simple yet versatile gowns and tweedy gentlemen’s outfits beautifully evoke Austen’s late-Georgian era.
(Pride And Prejudice plays in repertory with upcoming Santa Cruz Shakespeare productions of A Comedy Of Errors and The Winter’s Tale through August 31 in the Audrey Stanley Grove at Delaveaga Park.