Amidst the ruins

Pride and Prejudice

Written by Jane Austen, Adapted by Christina Calvit

At the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company through July 29

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company takes a break from its usual Elizabethan fare to visit the Regency era in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The result is a fun, if uneven production that focuses more on the comedy of the Austen’s seminal work than its romance.

In some ways, Christina Calvit’s adaptation is quite successful. She hits the main points of the book and maintains Austen’s language, but much is lost as the play rushes through the characters’ evolutions. As a result, it is both a help and a hindrance to be a fan of the book. While you will be able to fill in the blanks, you will also find yourself acutely aware of those blanks, wondering what happened to many a beloved scene or character.

Mr. Bennet (Jonas David Grey) has five daughters, all unable to inherit his estate; his wife, then, is frantic to get them well-married—though the histrionic Mrs. Bennet (Lesley Malin) probably would have freaked out about the matchmaking process anyway. When a young bachelor named Mr. Bingley (James Jager) moves into the neighborhood, Mrs. Bennet is determined to marry off one of her daughters to him. Mr. Bingley is enchanted by the eldest daughter, Jane (Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly). Meanwhile, his friend Mr. Darcy (Adam Sheaffer), spurns Jane’s sister Elizabeth (Blythe Coons) at a ball. As Mr. Bingley and Jane court, however, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth are frequently thrown together, and he begins to appreciate Elizabeth’s wit and beauty while she, oblivious to his changing feelings, takes great pleasure in disliking him.

The romance between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy forms the cornerstone of the plot, as misunderstandings, uneven affections, and embarrassing relatives—like Elizabeth’s cousin and unwanted suitor, Mr. Collins (Jose Guzman), and Mr. Darcy’s supercilious aunt, Lady Catherine De Bourgh (Molly Moores)—get in the way.

The leads, Coons as Elizabeth and Sheaffer as Darcy, easily walk away with the show. Coons, in particular, is a standout. Her Elizabeth is wry and charming, and when she and Darcy are playfully bantering, their chemistry is undeniable. However, both have trouble showing the subtle character shifts that the romance is built on. This lack of subtlety and a rushed resolution result in an Darcy/Elizabeth romance that feels unfortunately inorganic.

The production, in general, seems so bent on being an easy-to-understand comedy that it occasionally slides into camp. This is especially true in the second half, when the cast seems to be fighting against the seriousness of the plot, overreaching for unnecessary laughs. Bingley, a bit of a dork in the first half, becomes a full-blown doofus as the play progresses. And Molly Moores, who uses affected speech so effectively as Bingley’s snobby sister, is positively absurd as the even more pompous Lady Catherine.

On the other hand, Malin and Guzman handle two of the story’s most over-the-top characters, Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins, with finesse, making them justifiably ridiculous without caricaturing them.

While director Isabelle Anderson struggles with the tone of the play, she handles the logistics beautifully. Staging a play set largely in parlors and ballrooms outside, in the ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute, seems like an odd choice, but Anderson and set designer Heidi Castle-Smith handle it deftly by keeping things simple. The few neutral-colored pieces of period furniture almost blend into the stone of the ruins. A chorus of neighborhood gossips pops out of archways, giving the sense of both how important reputation was and how much everyone knew each other’s business in the small provincial towns of the time.

The costumes, by Kelsey Hunt, are intricate yet effortless and clearly differentiate the characters, which is particularly important as many actors play multiple roles.

Translating this long, plot- and-character-heavy novel to the stage is a daunting task: The BBC needed a miniseries to do it justice. And while trading Pride and Prejudice’s nuance and romance for broad comedy may disappoint Austen fans, the imaginative characters and clever dialogue still resonate in the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s fun, silly romp.

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