Theater review: ‘Pride and Prejudice’ at Orlando Shakes

By Elizabeth Maupin
Elizabeth Maupin on Theater

Michele Vazquez as Elizabeth Bennet and Avery Clark as Fitzwilliam Darcy

All Hertfordshire may know Miss Elizabeth Bennet as a singular sort of young woman – plucky, forthright, even brash.

But not until she moves across an Orlando Shakespeare Theater stage, in Jane Austen’s classic comedy Pride and Prejudice, has Lizzy Bennet seemed so akin to Shakespeare’s own heroines at their best.

That actress Michele Vazquez’s Lizzy may remind you of Shakespeare’s ardent Rosalind and his volatile Kate is all to the good in Jon Jory’s rollicking adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which embraces all of the high-spirited mischief of Austen’s novel but gives its darker undertones short shrift.

Of course, transforming several hundred pages of a densely written 19th-century social satire into a modern 2½-hour stage comedy requires some judicious pruning. And it’s hard to fault Jory (long the artistic director at Actors Theatre of Louisville) for delivering a comedy that’s so deliciously fun.

Credit director Thomas Ouellette and his crack creative team (choreographer W. Robert Sherry, lighting designer Eric T. Haugen, scenic designer Bob Phillips, sound designer Matthew Given and costume designer Jack A. Smith) for a staging that’s as beautifully fashioned as it is canny and quick. In fact, while you’re watching this production gallop along you may find yourself trying in vain to catch your breath because you don’t want to miss a word.

Maybe the hit screen adaptations – the 1995 BBC miniseries, with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, or the lightweight 2005 Keira Knightley version – have given Pride and Prejudice its reputation as a romance novel. Or maybe it’s simply that Austen was a woman novelist. (When I interviewed macho writer James Dickey in the ‘80s and told him I was rereading Jane Austen, he said, “Oh, yeah, women like that stuff.”)

But dismissing Austen in that way is missing the point of her satire of 19th-century British society, which could be delectably silly, stunningly hypocritical and frighteningly hostile to those without the advantages of money, gender or birth.

Brooke M. Haney as Mary, Anne Hering as Mrs. Bennet, Wynn Harmon as Mr. Bennet and Michele Vazquez as Elizabeth

Those disadvantages underlie Elizabeth Bennet’s story, but here they take back seat to the more pleasurable pursuits of watching the five Bennet sisters as they seek, or flee from, love.

Lizzy is the second of five Bennet girls whose gentleman father, for lack of a male heir, must leave his estate to a distant male cousin. When two wealthy young aristocrats turn up in the neighborhood, eldest daughter Jane falls for one of them, Mr. Bingley, but is thwarted when his family and friends judge her not sufficiently high-born. And Lizzy takes an immediate dislike to the arrogant Mr. Darcy, who holds himself above the provincial county and believes, even when his heart contradicts him, that he’s always right.

Orlando Shakespeare performs the show on the same stage as its current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Phillips’ basic scenic design is the same for the two comedies – a set of six doorways on two levels, with a balcony running along the upper story. For this show, the additions on the thrust stage are elegantly simple – a set of gilt ballroom chairs, which move around to become a sofa, a pianoforte or even a carriage, along with a collection of chandeliers and a view of green Hertfordshire hills through the doors. Haugen’s buoyant lighting makes it all seem as airy and light as an English summer’s day.

Trent Fucci as Mr. Wickham and Kristin Shirilla as Lydia

And here you get a broad taste of Austen’s supporting characters – the sad-sack sister Mary (Brooke M. Haney), who throws herself and her omnipresent book to the floor with a loud plop; the frivolous youngest sister Lydia (Kristin Shirilla), who giddily ignores everything that doesn’t concern her; and the mopey sister Kitty (Kelli Rose Sleigh), Lydia’s willing accomplice.

Courtney Moors and Walter Kmiec (Helena and Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) make a straightforward pair of lovers – Moors a Jane who is both sweet and lively and

Michele Vazquez as Elizabeth and Courtney Moors as Jane

Kmiec a courtly Bingley. Wynn Harmon (who plays Oberon in Midsummer) makes a very funny, bandy-legged and endearing Mr. Bennet, and Orlando Shakes mainstay Anne Hering is a stitch as the silly, dimply Mrs. Bennet, whose voice drops from shrill to basso profundo when she gets riled. (“Stay!” she barks to Elizabeth as if her daughter were an unruly dog.)

As Mrs. Bennet’s opposite number, the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Robin Olson is also suitably large – garbed wittily in what looks like 19th-century England’s version of a cowgirl outfit and speaking to her inferiors (everyone she meets, in other words) as if she had a bad taste in her mouth.

Jory’s adaptation may skim a little too lightly over the much-maligned distant cousin Mr. Collins, and maybe Michael Daly (a wonderful Bottom in Midsummer) doesn’t have enough stage time to plumb Mr. Collins’ excesses. Daly makes him dull in a surprisingly jolly fashion but maybe not as mean-spirited as Collins is meant to be.

A couple of minor characters may surprise you, as well: Trent Fucci plays the disreputable Wickham as downright unpleasant, and Pascha Weaver turns Lizzy’s supportive aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, into a matchmaking yenta with a gleam in her eye.

Jory may skimp, too, on the various shadings of Mr. Darcy’s character: Maybe that’s what happens when you try to make a novel full of internal musings into a play. In any case, Avery Clark – who is Lysander in Midsummer and was a standout as the title character in last season’s Hamlet – falls prey a bit to the Darcy challenge: He’s so haughty (and largely silent) throughout most of the play that his turnaround may come as a shock. Clark makes a striking Darcy, and it’s fun to watch him as his emotions get the better of him. Too bad that those changes seem all too subtle.

Michele Vazquez as Elizabeth Bennet and Avery Clark as Darcy

But his body language with Vazquez’s Lizzy is fraught and lovely when the two characters finally see each other for what they really are. And Vazquez makes a Lizzy who seems beautifully familiar both in ways you expect – she is, as the script says, “the most critical young lady in Hertfordshire” – and in ways you don’t.

Maybe it’s from my having seen the same actress play Hermia in Midsummer two weeks ago, but Vazquez’s down-to-earth Lizzy seems as brave and self-possessed, as loving and ultimately as wise as a Shakespearean heroine at her best. Fiction doesn’t get any better.

‘Pride and Prejudice’

  • What: Orlando Shakespeare Theater production of Jon Jory comedy, adapted from the Jane Austen novel.
  • Where: Margeson Theater, Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando.
  • When: 8 p.m. Feb. 12, 19 and 25 and March 5, 11, 12 and 18; 2 p.m. Feb. 13, 23 and 27 and March 9 and 20; 7 p.m. Feb. 17 and 23 and March 3, 9 and 16 (running in repertory with A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
  • Running time: Two hours 35 minutes, including one intermission.
  • Cost: $20-$38 most performances, $15 Wednesday matinees, $20 for those under 30 on March 11.
  • Call: 407-447-1700 Ext. 1.
  • Online: Orlandoshakes.org.

Other events:

  • Chat-back at Barnes and Noble: Thursday, 5 p.m. Feb. 17. Meet and greet the cast and creative team. Questions, autographs and photographs welcome! Barnes & Noble, Colonial Plaza Market Center, 2418 East Colonial Drive, Orlando.
  • Mock Trial: Darcy v. Wickham: 5:30 p.m. March 1. Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s Bard’s Board Barristers presents its annual mock trial at Lowndes Shakespeare Center. This event will focus on arguments based upon unsettled legal issues between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham from Pride and Prejudice.  Drinks and hors d’oeuvres will be served at 5:30 p.m., the trial begins at 6:30 p.m. and the case will be closed by 7:30 p.m. There is a $20 suggested donation.
  • Shall We Dance? Jane Austen Dance Party: 6:30 p.m Feb. 25 or 5:30 p.m. March 3. Learn how to dance Regency-style with W. Robert Sherry, the choreographer from Pride and Prejudice. This is your chance to charm Mr. Bingley, fall in love with Elizabeth, lavish your partner with affections or scandalously conduct indiscreet conversations with your friends and neighbors!  No experience necessary and no partners required. $15 for single tickets, $30 for a couple, $85 for two tickets to Pride and Prejudice, the dance party and two drinks at the show (a $110 value).

All photos by Tony Firriolo/Orlando Shakespeare Theater.

Copyright 2011 by Elizabeth Maupin.

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