Disclaimer: In 1995, when I was 18 years old, a friend sent me several VHS tapes full of the BBC’s latest production of Pride and Prejudice. I was immediately entranced, smitten, and obsessed. Several years later in college, I took an Austen seminar class, then visited her birthplace during a semester abroad. My senior capstone was a review of the intertextuality of Austen in Nora Ephron films.
What I’m saying is: I very likely should recuse myself from reviewing any and all Austen productions. Feel free to take my delight with a grain of salt.
A parfait swirled with equal parts romantic comedy, feminist tract, and farce–despite the title character declaring, at the peak of a very funny scene, that she detests the latter–Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is a holiday treat perfectly designed for an audience who enjoys a good meet-cute with their eggnog and fruitcake. Set two years after Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage, Lauren Gunderson’s charming play, full of Easter eggs for fans of the original text as well as several adaptations, introduces the audience to a matured Mary Bennet, one who has continued to read and observe while remaining with her parents. Rebecca Hurd’s performance as the serious-minded and intelligent but also keenly sensitive and frustrated angry young woman fighting to be heard and recognized by her sisters is exquisitely thoughtful and three-dimensional, carefully crafted to show Austen’s secondary character now fully and colorfully realized. American Players Theater regulars may recognize Hurd from her equally beautiful and moving performance in 2017’s production of Arcadia, where she played another young woman absorbed by learning and love; her skills as a leading actor have only grown since then.
Mary’s world begins to expand when she meets her intellectual and serious-minded equal in Arthur de Bourgh, Darcy’s cousin who comes to visit in the hopes he can learn to be a landed gentleman, though his heart remains at the libraries of Oxford. Clearly a physical comedian of the first order, Jordan Brodess makes Arthur a veritable souffle, airily rising with the hope and joy of infatuation, only to fall–in several scenes, quite literally–as misunderstandings and disagreements pile up. Together they are a charming pair, and it’s likely no surprise or spoiler to share that all ends happily and very effectively “aww” inducing. Along the way, they also balance the text’s interest in having two characters who speak out against the way societal constructs enforce and depress individual ambitions for the sake of long-held traditions, be they patriarchal or economic.
Hurd and Brodess are joined by a joy-filled ensemble, including Margaret Ivey and Yousof Sultani as Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Sarai Rodriguez and Fred Geyer as Jane and Charles Bingley, Netta Walker as the effervescent, selfish, but ultimately redeemable Lydia Wickham, and Deanna Myers as the sheltered and intractable Anne de Bourgh. Each performer has a chance to shine, and they come together to create not only a sense of history and familial warmth by decorating Elizabeth’s divisive new tradition from Germany, a large spruce tree. They also all have opportunities to sing, dance, and create dialogueless domestic time-lapse scenes scored by string arrangements of contemporary hits by Katy Perry and Britney Spears… one assumes Mary Bennet would have swapped her Beethoven out for their brand of musical empowerment were she born in 1996, not 1796.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is a joy and a treat, particularly if you want to inject live theater into your holiday rom-com routine or if you are a lover of all things Austen. It only runs for two more weeks, ending December 16. Tickets are available at www.MilwaukeeRep.com or by calling the Ticket Office at 414-224-9490.