Turning the Page

Turning the Page

Pink vines curl up the walls and across the floor of the stage. They cover everything from the writing desk to the ottomans, painted over the entire set like the cover of a book.

The effect is appropriate for this adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel, Pride and Prejudice. As the play on Long Wharf Theatre’s main stage begins, Lizzy Bennet (Aneisa J. Hicks) shuts the book she’s reading with a snap, looks out at the audience and laughs. Cue Megumi Katayama’s classical-pop fusion sound design as the cast floods the stage. Dressed in a hybrid of modern fashion―a jumpsuit, combat boots, a cropped denim jacket―and Regency style, they dance, alternating between the steps of a traditional ball and the grooves of a modern club. As director Jess McLeod notes in the program: “This Pride and Prejudice may not be what you expect.”

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Many contemporary interpretations have focused on historical and literary accuracy, hoping to immerse the audience in early 19th-century England. The key to the success of Long Wharf’s production, however, is its departure from tradition. “Iconic characters on the page and actors on the stage frequently don’t look like me,” Jacob G. Padrón, artistic director, writes in the program, but this stage adaptation offers a “kaleidoscope of voices.” The cast is diverse in identity, heightening the story’s existing feminist elements and disrupting traditional ideas of gender for a modern audience.

Every actor, with the exception of Hicks and Biko Eisen-Martin (in the role of Mr. Darcy), plays two or three different characters, some male and some female. Each follows the note left by playwright Kate Hamill in the script: “If playing another gender identity, please do not play ‘at’ being a man or woman. Play the character, not the gender.” Certain roles are tied together because they share a core characteristic. For example, Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Bennet, both played by Rami Margron, are old souls who have a special rapport with Lizzy. Actor Brian Lee Huynh particularly shines first as the not-so-subtle Miss Caroline Bingley, returning as the sleazy Lieutenant Wickham and reappearing once more as the silly Mr. Collins. Huynh portrays each with precision, bringing these distinctive characters to life.

The humor in Jane Austen’s work often gets overlooked, but in this production little is forgotten. Mr. Bingley’s (Luis Moreno) puppy love for Jane is so exaggerated that the rest of the cast treats him like an actual dog, enjoying his delightful bubbliness as he “throws a ball” (pun intended). This adaptation finally uses Darcy’s pretentious first name―Fitzwilliam—for laughs. Darcy is less than eloquent and Lizzy is clumsy, leading to a hilariously awkward first impression. Homing in on the humor of the source material makes this production accessible—a story about realistic, imperfect people—where it might otherwise feel distant. As Lizzy herself says, “One cannot always cry over it, so I laugh whenever I can.”

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Comparing that line of Lizzy’s to its closest antecedent in the novel—“I hope I never ridicule what is wise and good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.”—gives you a sense of the way this telling achieves sharpness and narrative efficiency while still retaining elements of the source material. The fast pace works well in Act One, giving us a sense of the momentous changes occurring in the world of the Bennet sisters. We follow as Jane (Octavia Chavez-Richmond) and Bingley fall in love, Mary (also played by Moreno) is bullied and Lizzy insists she hates Darcy just as much as she hates the idea of marriage. Act One ends with the departure of Bingley and Darcy, just when Jane and Bingley seemed poised for an engagement. Lizzy reassures a heartbroken Jane, telling her, “It will all be perfect, you’ll see.” We are confident in her promise, and those familiar with the novel may think they know exactly what is to come in the second act for Lizzy: a proposal, a rejection, reconsideration, a second proposal and a happy ending.

Not quite. In Act Two, when Darcy enters out of the rain to speak to Lizzy, he tells her how ardently he admires and loves her, but he also delivers a new speech that argues for the value of imperfection in romance. His delivery has a slam poetry quality, the expression of his feelings transfixing and overwhelming Lizzy. She spills ink on the floor and drops a half-finished letter on the ground. He kneels to help, but she seethes, “I do not need you!”

Like the scattered papers, the play begins to deviate more decisively from the story we’re used to. Lydia (Dawn Elizabeth Clements) is given a self-awareness of her own mistakes not usually afforded her by other adaptations. Mary, merely comic relief in Act One, provides an insightful monologue about ideals of perfection. Everyone is present for the final scene between Lizzy and Darcy, making his second proposal a public event rather than a private moment. These changes and the production’s rapid pace cause us to wonder whether a happy, “perfect” ending really is assured.

As a longtime fan of the book, I left feeling conflicted between loyalty to the original and appreciation for Hamill’s take. But “a good story can have many lives,” as Padrón insists. McLeod’s direction of Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice is lively, accessible and unexpected, and its updated themes challenge us to think about love and perfection in a new way, even after the cover is closed.

Pride and Prejudice
Long Wharf Theatre – 222 Sargent Dr, New Haven (map)
Showtimes through December 22
(203) 787-4282

Written by Elizabeth Roy. Photographed by T. Charles Erickson for Long Wharf Theatre. Image 1 features most of the cast. Image 2 features Octavia Chavez-Richmond and Brian Lee Huynh. Image 3 features Aneisa J. Hicks, Maria Elena Ramirez and Biko Eisen-Martin.

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