It appears Kate Hamill and I must agree to disagree on what a stage adaptation of a Jane Austen novel should entail.
Which, of course, is a dry, Austen-ish way of asking, “What’s up with that?”
Hamill is the actor-playwright at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival who has adapted ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ – to rapturous reviews in ‘The New York Times’ as well as transfers off-Broadway. Both plays have had subsequent productions around the country, and Hamill intends to adapt all of Austen’s novels eventually.
It’s difficult to imagine how she might top her version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ – currently in its area premiere, staged by artistic director Joanie Schultz as WaterTower Theatre’s season opener. Given this show’s wind-tunnel level of energy and clattering theatrical cleverness (some of it devised by Schultz), when Hamill gets around to adapting ‘Mansfield Park,’ she may have to hire a troupe of Marx Brothers impersonators and let them thwack away happily at each other.
OK. So let’s address some important considerations:
First, the WaterTower production is indeed funny at times. Schultz’ direction is inventive. Furniture pieces don’t just roll on; actors use them like skateboards or wheelchairs. The quick-change drag acts are delightfully cheap and cheesy, and the re-configuration of the entire theater space is welcome (the set design is by Chelsea Warren) [see comments below]. Austen’s characteristic wit does peep through occasionally in the dialogue, even though Schultz has a number of actors bark it out in Monty Python-shire accents. It seems almost inevitable the show would generate some laughs from the many absurdities being hurled at us.
In fact, when the ‘Times’ reviewed the Hudson Valley debut of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ it hailed the stage version as “madcap.”
Quick word association: Jane Austen – ‘madcap’?
If anything, the novelist’s writing has often been faulted for the opposite – for being too twee, too discreet, too prim, too fiddly with the tell-tale details of class insecurity. Charlotte Bronte famously dismissed Austen for never leaving her well-trimmed garden for the larger, darker world outside. This has long been the accusation her advocates have vociferously denied: With all of human life to contend with, Austen is content to play a tastefully restrained round of ‘How to Win at Love and Estate Planning.’
Indeed, two years ago, when the Dallas Theater Center presented Hamill’s first adaptation, ‘Sense and Sensibility,‘ it reduced Austen’s novel to a trivial comedy of manners – in effect, fulfilling the charges of Austen’s critics. It was well-executed, droll, affected and frivolous.
But Emma Thompson – in her Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1995 film of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ – underlined how high the stakes actually were for Austen’s women. In words the novelist never wrote (she never needed to because her audience probably knew this perfectly well), Thompson explained how marriage and male privilege utterly dominated the lives of these women: how little influence they had with families, fortunes or their own futures, how terrified they were by the loss of a male heir or the lack of an acceptable husband. And this held true, even in Thompson’s adaptation, which made Austen’s men more feminist and sensitive and interesting than they are in the book. (The Ang Lee film remains one of the finer, more moving Austen adaptations of recent vintage.)
It’s true Hamill does include such a description of women’s confined roles in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ at the end of the first act. Mrs. Bennet, played by Wendy Welch, completely loses what little self-control she’s had because of her daughters’ failures in courtship. Our heroine, Lizzy, the sensible Bennet sister, has rejected a marriage offer from her creepy, social-climbing cousin Collins. At the same time, the pretty but shy daughter Jane has somehow lost a very lucrative possibility with the marriage-minded Mr. Bingley. Consequently, Mrs. Bennet reads her daughters the riot act about money, marriage, women’s imperiled status in general and how the two of them have trashed the entire family’s hopes for the future.
It’s also a speech that really doesn’t exist in the original. Perhaps Hamill learned something from Thompson’s screenplay.
At any rate, the stage speech – a rare opportunity for Welch to unleash her inner rampager – remains relatively weightless. Ma Bennet has already established herself with heavy doses of mercenary interest (“Ten thousand pounds a year!” she wails repeatedly). She’s an embarrassment not just to the eye-rolling Lizzy but to her possible love interest, Mr. Darcy, and others of his proper (that is, well-off) social circle.
In Austen’s world, Mrs. Bennet concerns may be valid, but she is definitely Not a Serious Person. (John Mullan, author of ‘What Is Important in Jane Austen?’ points out: In the novels, the important plot information is always delivered by “the stupid people.”) And as if to completely balloon-pop Mrs. Bennet’s warnings (and to end the act on the right note of imminent threat and humor), her speech is interlarded with several comic moments, just to make sure we don’t take Mom’s warnings too gravely.
Second important consideration: With her first adaptation, ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ Hamill aimed for creating a bustling portrait of Regency society with a cast of 11 actors, almost all switching in and out of multiple roles. With ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ she seriously streamlines Austen’s story. She reduces it primarily to the immediate Bennet household and the three male suitors (thus, only eight actors are needed this time).
This smaller focus tends to intensify Austen’s rom-com. It develops the energy and speed of out-and-out farce. Schultz has some actors go for broke with extravagant comic caricatures, mostly of supporting figures (Brandon Potter, Steph Garrett, Justin Duncan, Kate Paulsen). We don’t get Austen’s precision-targeted social satire of the English classes so much as a visit to a family asylum.
But four performers (and their characters, of course) do recognize the general chaos around them and choose, more or less, to withdraw from the emotional uproar. There’s Kate Paulsen’s delicate performance as Jane, the pretty sister, the family’s hope who cannot comprehend why she’s lost the marriage game, why she’s been abandoned by the dithering Bingley (Justin Duncan).
Meanwhile, as our heroine Lizzy, Jenny Ledel delivers another perfectly tuned performance. Her Lizzy is a smart cookie who’s earnest, exasperated, lovelorn and not as sharp as she’d like to think: Blind to her own longings, she chooses to reject the whole marriage-go-round entirely.
As the paterfamilias Mr. Bennet, Bob Hess has one of those choice little comic roles, the voice of defeated reason who’s given up trying to curtail the zanies around him. Hess knows the comic contrast is what plays well, so he enjoys himself hiding behind Mr. Bennet’s defensive newspaper and puncturing their outbursts with the occasional, droll observation. It’s also Hess’s drag portrayal of the woeful Charlotte Lucas, a friend of Lizzy’s, that lets us truly feel the poignant (and yes, comic) pains, the constricted choices for Austen’s women.
Finally, John-Michael Marrs plays Mr. Darcy as stiffer, sterner, more furrowed-browed than most. He doesn’t convey the inner, troubled smolder Darcy needs to suggest he’s unknowingly, unwillingly, attracted to Lizzy. It’s only at the very end, when Ledel and Marrs are alone, that things quiet down enough that some of their central, motivating romance comes through.
Third consideration: Despite appearances, I am not a loyal, hide-bound member of the Cult of Jane, defending her honor against all updatings and directorial inventions. Quite the opposite. True, I enjoy the comic sharpness that her novels’ delicate restraint grants them, as well as her hints at deeper, underlying fears. But she’s not really my cup of Darjeeling. I usually prefer the stronger stuff under the counter.
Which is why I could be convinced that the umpty-ump version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ needs a little goosing with manic fun. After all, scholars and purists howled at Colin Firth’s wet-shirted Darcy in the 1995 BBC mini-series, even as female Janeites ranked him as their absolute fave, though Austen, of course – the product of a long line of clergymen – would never have written such a brazen scene.
Or would she? Feminists have since countered that turnabout is fair play for the female gaze. A modern view of the male-as-sex object is one that Austen might have embraced, given that her subject is primarily women’s inner lives. Sex may remain the Great Unmentionable in her novels, but it’s hardly like female desire didn’t exist in 1813. So why not a hunky Darcy now – to say what Austen might have wanted to but couldn’t?
Ergo, one might well argue that Schultz and Hamill are doing just this, cracking open the two-century-old carapace that confines the novel. They do so by giving it all this campy theatrical life and pop-culture in-jokery. The WaterTower show immediately announces that things will be unconventional (and a bit obvious) by opening with Wayne Fontanta’s 1965 hit, ‘The Game of Love.’ Schultz and Hamill promptly launch their wild and noisy sports anachronisms at us.
Schultz has everyone wearing athletic shoes (the costumes are by Sylvia Fuhrken). And the theater is laid out in what’s typically called “stadium seating.” The audience is divided into two sections, each seated on opposite sides of the playing area, like high school fans at a basketball game. The set is also armed with basketball hoops and there are referee whistles going off and penalty buzzers and a timekeeper’s bell.
Who knew the Regency liked nuthin’ but net?
In short, given the chance, Schultz never gives up hammering a joke. When anyone encounters the homely daughter Mary Bennet (played in drag by Duncan – in a black hoodie that makes him look like a resentful monk), they immediately flinch in shock at her appearance, clutching their heart. It’s an oldie but a goody. By the end of two hours, though, what was a running gag about her looks is dragging itself to the finish line.
With Austen’s satire, there has always been the occasional touch of refined cruelty. At times, she’ll flat-out call a character “stupid.” (“For what do we live, but to make sport of our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn?”). Here, the repeated, horrified double-takes mock Mary for her looks, for what she can’t control (and Austen depicts her only as plain, not actively gruesome). From the start, Mary is simply a loser in the all-important marital sweepstakes going on: For the women here, looks do count.
But when youngest daughter Lydia (Steph Garrett) crows that she’s slam-dunked the marriage-and-money game before her sisters have even gotten off the bench, she quickly learns she’s been headstrong and heedless. She’s sacrificed social approval for a quick win. Austen’s novels always embody lessons like this about balancing social propriety with personal fulfillment. Along with her heroines, we readers discover how these people and their society and their inner motivations work and how they should act (it’s one reason some us find her occasionally irksome – those witty but preachy judgments).
But the stage adaptation treats Mary shabbily; it’s not as understanding as Lizzy herself learns to be (and by extension, we do, too). I’ve gone on about Minor Mary at more length than the character merits solely because it’s a telling fault: The show’ll go for the laugh, not the character Austen created, not the humanity, not the quietly valiant feminism that Austen’s novels supposedly represent. And the show is certainly not going for the novelist’s famously dry restraint.
So one can’t help but feel that Hamill and Schultz have also been headstrong and heedless. For this adaptation’s exuberance, they’ve too easily sacrificed much of what makes Austen Austen.