In humor, efficiency and gentility, Park Square Theatre’s “Pride and Prejudice” is nothing like Jane Austen. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
If you’re looking for a play that captures Austen’s spirit and wit, that’s “Miss Bennet” at Minneapolis’ Jungle Theater. “P Squared” goes for something different. It rips apart Austen’s comedy of manners and puts it back together to ask, in a way, what the story of women forced to choose between love and security would be like if Austen wrote it today.
So, for instance, this version makes sure to point out that Mr. Wickham, whose name implies his wickedness, is a pedophile who grooms two different girls who are just 14. It depicts not just the misunderstandings that keep heroine Lizzy Bennet (charming China Brickey) from finding her way to love with mysterious Mr. Darcy but how she often gets in her own way. It features lots of un-Austen-like shouting and coarse humor, a reminder that, even if she didn’t write about people blowing snot all over each other, humans did have bodily fluids in the refined Regency era.
And, in envisioning Lizzy’s sister Mary (Neal Beckman, who’s a hoot) as a cross between Norman Bates’ mother in “Psycho” and that scary final ghost in “A Christmas Carol,” this production lays bare that being a young woman with few choices in the England of 200 years ago could be like living in a horror movie. Basically, you had two choices: Marry some random dude you may or may not love or end up a crazy spinster holed up in an irritated relative’s attic.
The first act ends with spooky lighting and music and the second act picks that up, blasting Queen’s tense “Under Pressure” to suggest the four Bennet sisters’ need to marry quickly, before their family home is lost. Oh, yes. Queen. Director Lisa Channer incorporates pop music into her Brechtian vision of Austen, in which we can see the entire Park Square stage, all the way to the back wall. The square playing space is surrounded by racks of costumes and props, so we watch as the actors shift characters (most play more than one role, not necessarily of the same gender) and have dance parties.
The setup invites us into this reimagining and allows Channer to have fun with the costume changes, as in one scene when nimble, witty Sara Richardson plays two characters almost simultaneously. But does the concept bring too many ideas to an already full party? I laughed at “Pride and Prejudice,” but I found myself growing impatient with its nearly three hours, which is why I idly checked to see how long other productions of Kate Hamill’s play have run and discovered that they’re 30 to 40 minutes shorter.
There’s a lot going on in this “Pride and Prejudice,” much of which is entertaining. But it also brings to mind the famous quip Mr. Bennet delivers to his daughter when her piano playing grows tiresome: “You have delighted us long enough.”
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