I must confess that I came to Austin Shakespeare's current production of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE with no prejudices of my own. I've never read the original Jane Austen novel, and I've never seen any of the film versions with the exception of Bridget Jones's Diary, which is very loosely based on the Austen classic. However, prior knowledge of Austen and her work is not needed whatsoever to enjoy this pristine production. Whether you are an Austen fan or are a newcomer like myself, there is much to love about this spectacular show.
The play, faithfully adapted from the original novel by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan, follows the story of strong-willed, stubborn Elizabeth Bennet (exquisitely portrayed by Liz Beckham) and her family of four sisters. While most of the sisters, pushed by their mother, have marriage on the brain, Elizabeth instead finds herself pondering why she dislikes the aloof Mr. Darcy (Michael Miller). It's a classic girl-hates-boy romantic comedy.
Director Ann Ciccolella is clearly a fan of the novel and the characters. Her passion for the work is seen in every aspect of the show, whether it be the attention paid to Austen's dialogue (the adapted text borrows heavily from the original book's dialogue), the perfect accents of each of her actors, and the details in the manners of each character and how they play off one another. Ciccolella understands that PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is equal parts comedy of errors, comedy of manners, and romantic comedy, and every moment, theme, and character shines through.
Ciccolella has also assembled one of the best design teams in Austin. Émilie Houssart's set is beautiful in its simplicity. The story and characters here are so strong that a trio of revolving walls and a few pieces of furniture are all that is needed to suggest setting, and the simplicity allows for some of the swiftest set changes I've ever seen, keeping the pacing quick and interesting. Choreographer Toni Bravo gives the characters some period appropriate dances, costumer Haydee Antunano dresses them to the nines in some of the most stunning period costumes I've ever seen, and lighting designer Jason Amato creates a warm, lush environment in which they live.
But it is the cast that truly makes Austen's novel come alive, and they do not disappoint. This is by far the strongest ensemble I've seen in any Austin production this year. Every actor breathes life and humor into their character. Some highlights include Jessica Hughes as Elizabeth's bookworm sister, Mary. Her facial expressions, especially when her boring anecdotes land with a thud, are hysterical. Steve Cruz clearly enjoys playing the pompous and often sleazy Mr. Collins. He hams it up a bit but never pulls focus or goes over the top, and the audience adores him. Johanna Whitmore excels at the social climbing and wealth coveting mother to Elizabeth. Even Kris Jenner would think this women needs to stop pushing her daughters into relationships for financial gain. Complementing Ms. Whitmore is Sam Grimes as her sarcastic, withdrawn husband. Michael Miller also shines as Mr. Darcy, the quiet, antisocial, and reserved object of Elizabeth's disdain and desire. But it is Liz Beckham as Elizabeth Bennet who you're likely to remember the most. Her take on Elizabeth is extraordinary. She certainly isn't an ice-cream binging, "All By Myself" singing heroine like her Bridget Jones parallel. Her Elizabeth is strong, resilient, headstrong and witty but with a subtle vulnerability underneath. Ms. Beckham is indeed a young Austin actress worth watching.
Whatever your knowledge of Jane Austen's body of work, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is an extremely enjoyable production of a classic. It's funny. It's touching. It's nearly three hours of incredibly eye-catching costumes. It's entertainment at its best.
Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, produced by Austin Shakespeare, plays The Rollins Studio Theater at The Long Center now thru November 25th. Performances are Thursdays – Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm with a special pre-performance tea before Sunday shows. No performance on Thanksgiving. Additional performance on Wednesday, November 21st at 8pm. Tickets are $29.00 and $17.00 for students. For tickets and more information, visit www.austinshakespeare.org.