Kate Hamill’s madcap romp through the jewel in Jane Austen’s literary crown, Pride and Prejudice, had the Santa Cruz Shakespeare opening night audience laughing out loud. A lot.
Part farce, part Monty Python, part game-show sitcom, this two-and-a-half hour spin on Austen’s romantic comedy of manners loads its deck with cross-casting, cross-dressing and screwball antics. Playing multiple roles, eight actors work briskly through the tale of neurotic Mrs. Bennett (Carol Halstead), a country woman with upscale ambitions, desperately seeking at least one well-heeled husband for her quartet of unmarried daughters. Once the long-suffering Mr. Bennett (a wonderful Allen Gilmore) dies, the family will be left penniless, hence Mrs. Bennett’s hunger for an eligible bachelor.
The turmoil of locating husbands unfolds on an enchanting set whose circular window revealed the moon rising through the eucalyptus groves throughout the opening performance. Except for the central figure Lizzie (Allie Pratt), who finds the game of snaring a husband to be repugnant, the Bennett daughters are highly available; youngest Lydia (a deft Madison Pullins), Jane (Karen Peakes) considered the prettiest, and Mary (Landon Hawkins) considered the least likely to attract a suitor.
Hawkins transforms himself onstage from a pigtailed wig and garish green gown into the handsome Mr. Bingley, who along with his sister (Ian Merrill Peakes) has just moved into the neighborhood, to the wheezing delight of Mrs. Bennett. The Bennett girls meet Bingley and his friend—the awkward, handsome Mr. Darcy (Lindsay Smiling)—at a neighborhood ball, and the game of class conflicts and rigid courtship codes of Regency England begins.
As a savvy postmodern playwright, Hamill is keen to point out how little things have changed since Austen’s day, when women were taught that destiny entailed marriage, period. And her approach involves great helpings of parody, slapstick and often-delicious sight gags in which characters switch in and out of drag with the pace of an ’80s Times Square disco. Opening night’s audience roared its approval during both acts, but especially the second, when the comedy was more acutely pitched against the seriousness of Austen’s social insights. As an irreverent deconstruction of the novel, Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice is full of fun, though not all of it equally successful.
Moving fluidly in and out of no fewer than three different characters, Ian Merrill Peakes owns many of the choicest moments. As the suave and ultimately chastened Mr. Wickham, he is elegant and seductive. As the hard-drinking sister of Bingley, he is a vision of drag perfection, providing a jaundiced counterpoint to the histrionic Mrs. Bennett. And as the country pastor coming to woo the lovely Lizzy, he is comic perfection. Armed with twitches, bodily mannerisms and vocal dazzle that John Cleese would kill for, Peakes reduced the opening night’s audience to tears of laughter. Genius.
I longed for more chemistry between the play’s central character, the smart and sensible Lizzy Bennet, and her adversary-turned-suitor Mr. Darcy. The connection between the actors, Pratt and Smiling, should tighten as the season continues. Here, as in other places, the director’s choices seemed ambivalent. And the scenes with the outrageously upper-crust Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Pullins again) fell into the cracks between camp, farce and social commentary, without illuminating any of those ideological strands.
The play itself—intent upon hilarity with a modern spin, while at the same time underscoring Austen’s social wisdom—seemed uncommitted to any particular point of view. And in that, it showed its 21st-century sensibility.
Pride and Prejudice offers a meaty and engaging evening’s entertainment. A feast for the eyes, thanks to costumer B. Modern and scenic designer Dipu Gupta, it will give fans of Jane Austen much food for thought and amusement.
‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Kate Hamill and directed by Paul Mullins, adapted from the novel by Jane Austen, runs at Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s Grove in DeLaveaga Park through Aug. 3. santacruzshakespeare.org.