It is a truth universally acknowledged that a novel beloved by millions for a couple of centuries must be in want of a stage adaptation. And so, playwright/actress Kate Hamill has undertaken to do the same for the works of Jane Austen. She began with a version of Sense & Sensibility that debuted in 2014 and had a well-received Off-Broadway production by the Bedlam Ensemble Theatre last year. Her intent, Hamill recently told The New York Times, is to adapt all six of Austen’s novels eventually. Her unorthodox take on Pride & Prejudice just had its world premiere a couple of weekends ago at Boscobel in Garrison by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF), directed by Amanda Dehnert, with Kate Hamill starring as Elizabeth Bennett as well.
How audiences will react will likely hinge on the seriousness of their level of veneration for the works of the early-19th-century English novelist of manners – because Hamill is not so much a Janeite as a guerrilla Austenista, with an approach to the canon more audaciously irreverent than most of us have encountered before. Jane Austen’s work is cherished for its humor, true; but in the original, it’s the arch sort of humor that slips slyly between the lines, delivered in the most polite and decorous of language. Not for Hamill such a passive/aggressive angle of attack; she goes for full-blown farce that tears the social conventions of the landed gentry to hysterical shreds. Amazingly, deliciously, it all works; but purists should consider themselves forewarned.
The first red flag that this was going to be an iconoclastic rendition of Pride was the casting of Jason O’Connell in the part of the aloof Mr. Darcy. O’Connell (reportedly Hamill’s real-life domestic partner) has been noted in Almanac Weekly’s pages several times previously as a comic actor of prodigious gifts. His Dorante in The Liar at Boscobel in 2014 had this reviewer breathless with laughter. Though he has been cast against type by HVSF before – notably as Darcy’s spiritual predecessor, Benedick, in Much Ado about Nothing – the stockily built actor doesn’t have the matinée-idol looks usually associated with filmic representations of Lizzy Bennett’s heartthrob/nemesis.
Clearly, something was up here. And in fact, though O’Connell’s Darcy has his funny moments (during dance numbers, he is determinedly the only cast member landing square off the beat), he keeps the absurdity of the aristocrat’s dignity low-key, relatively speaking. The rest of the ensemble exhibits no such Austenesque restraint, and the mantle for wackiest comic turns is passed to fellow HVSF alumnus Mark Bedard, who plays the unbearable clergyman Mr. Collins, the rakish officer Wickham and the snobbish Caroline Bingley. Besides Hamill and O’Connell, all of the eight cast members play multiple roles, a fair few of them in drag.
John Tufts, who is quite literally tasked with portraying the much-sought-after wealthy bachelor Mr. Bingley as Darcy’s obedient puppy, is also very funny in the part of Mary, the consumptive, pontificating pill of a Bennett sister. Every time he slips on Mary’s long, baggy gown, he transforms into a sort of vulture, sourly hunched on the sidelines, broadcasting simmering resentment with every glare. HVSF veteran Nance Williamson is having her usual rollicking good time, primarily in the role of the embarrassingly ambitious Mrs. Bennett. The rest of the ensemble also shines, shapeshifting readily and sharing the spotlight generously.
While clever, the humor here is very broad indeed: Jane Austen as might have been rendered as a Restoration comedy, or with lyrics by W. S. Gilbert. Superfluous characters have been excised mercilessly by the playwright – including one of the original five Bennett sisters, Kitty; but four dowryless daughters seem to be quite enough of a burden for one financially stressed family to marry off with advantage. The audience on Opening Night ate it all up with a big spoon and a lengthy standing ovation at the finale. I didn’t take a poll as to how many of them were Austen purists.
Doubtful about taking the plunge? Consider that such a thing as Pride & Prejudice & Zombies already exists, making this adaptation seem rather less scandalous in concept than, say, Lydia Bennett’s impetuous elopement without benefit of clergy. At least there are no undead characters in it (though one actor did improvise a very brief zombie walk at the performance that I witnessed). If you attend summer theater with any regularity, you’ve certainly seen more outrageous interpretations of Shakespeare, so why not Jane Austen?
I highly recommend giving HVSF’s Pride & Prejudice a try. It’s loads of fun, put on with both great professionalism and refreshing, zany zest. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. on July 5, 8, 11, 14, 18, 20, 23, 26 and 29, August 10, 13, 16, 19, 22, 25, 29 and 31 and September 4. Come early, have a picnic and enjoy the stunning view of the Hudson Highlands. Boscobel House & Gardens are located at 1601 Route 9D in Garrison. For tickets and further information, visit https://hvshakespeare.org.