“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” in Playhouse on Park through December 23, looks smart, acts smart, and is a smart alternative to all the wacky or cheesy Christmas shows that are clogging theaters this month.
It’s a charming throwback to the genre of quaint, romantic melodrama that dominated the theater world for much of the 20th century, though its roots were mostly literary.
“Christmas at Pemberley” is a bold sequel to Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice”, focusing on the one of the four Bennet sisters who remains single at the end of the book.
Playhouse on Park staged a “Pride and Prejudice” play two years ago, just before the COVID-19 shutdown. It was the popular adaptation of Austen’s book by Kate Hamill, which was also produced at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven that season. Hamill’s version is a love parody of “Pride and Prejudice” set in 1813 when the novel was published, but viewed from a modern perspective, with actors crossing age and gender expectations to play multiple characters, a score of contemporary pop music and many nods to the public.
“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” – by Lauren Gunderson (whose uplifting feminist historical comedy “The Revolutionists” was filmed at the Playhouse in Park in 2019) and Margot Melcon – has a different style and attitude than “Pride and Prejudice” by Hamill. While the Playhouse on Park production tries to tie the two shows together with disco music between stages, a diverse racial cast, and dashing animated performances, the script doesn’t turn into parody or irony. It’s a sweet love story, with lots of light comedy, about Austen’s endearing Bennet sisters and their romantic weaknesses.
In addition to exaggerating the sisters’ personalities, escalating conflict, and using contrived plots such as unsigned love letters ending up in the wrong hands (which Shakespeare also used), Gunderson and Melcon use Austen’s characters to advance the novelist‘s themes of female empowerment, inner strength, and fiery nonconformity.
It is the story of strong women who get what they want, often helped by their husbands who support them.
By paying special attention to Mary, the sister Bennet commonly described as “simple” or “bookish” and to whom the novel attributes “a pedantic air and a conceited manner”, “Christmas at Pemberley” is able to overturn some old stereotypes that ‘Austen setting herself up. Of course, the play still fuels heteronormative class marriage fantasies with respect for patriarchal hegemony, but you can’t have it all.
After all, “Pride and Prejudice” is the novel that begins with this line: “It is a universally recognized truth, that a single man in possession of good fortune must be looking for a wife.”
Mary’s intellect and talent, it is implied, prevents her from finding a husband, let alone a soul mate. Her younger and already married sister Lydia is so oblivious to the concept that anyone could find Mary a desirable husband that when such a person appears, Lydia happily begins to flirt with him herself. This triangle consumes much of the first act. A whole different rival for Mary arrives just before the intermission. Spoiler alert: love conquers all.
Mary and Lydia, supporting characters in Austen’s book, have fun this time around, while their sisters Elizabeth and Jane (played with great charm and grace by Dakota Mackey-McGee and Kristin Fulton) stroll back- plan, impeccably dressed, giving advice kindness. (The book’s fifth sister, Kitty, does not make an appearance.)
Likewise, Elizabeth and Jane’s husbands, Mr. Darcy (Griffin Stanton-Ameisen) and Mr. Bingley (Karim Nematt) are mainly there to give an air of decorum. If anyone gets out of hand, these older, settled couples (who have been married for two years at the time of this story) are there to gently tell them to calm down.
As Mary, Sydney Torres showcases the character’s intelligence and confidence, but also imbues her with an evil sense of humor. She feels misunderstood, but not in a withdrawn way.
Mary’s love interest is the boy boy Arthur de Bourgh, an entirely new character not found in the novel “Pride and Prejudice”, and played here as a naive, socially awkward, and utterly young Oxford scholar. adorable by Ted Gibson.
Even a moral comedy needs a spitfire, and Laura Axelrod, as Lydia, is the volatile element that turns civility upside down so that it can be perfectly righted.
While most of the cast are newbies at Playhouse on Park, director Sasha Bratt has conducted many shows there (as well as a series of play readings). He knows how to fill this wide and deep performance space with wide circular walks, crazy races and beautiful dancing.
Christmas is a pretty incidental part of the plot – there are a lot of jokes about the weird German tendency to decorate a pine tree inside one’s house, and the holiday season is the main excuse for that. new characters enter the room.
What motivates the screenplay the most is the love of good literature. Mary and Arthur’s relationship is based on their exuberant thirst for knowledge. They express their shared passion for reading throughout the play, curtailing ignorant, dreaming non-readers of globetrotting adventures they plan to experience based on the books and maps they have read.
Mary also reads music, and when she feels excluded from others, she expresses her emotions through the piano. Torres is quite convincing in these scenes, hunching her shoulders and throwing wild looks while hammering the keys deep in the scene.
For Playhouse on Park, “Christmas at Pemberley” is an opportunity to brighten up the holidays and give audiences the theatrical equivalent of curling up with a good book.
“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” runs through December 23 at the Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford. The performances are Tuesday at 2 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. The performances from December 21 to 23 are all at 7:30 p.m. $ 40- $ 50; $ 37.50 to $ 47.50 for students, seniors, military, and members of Let’s Go Arts. playhouseonpark.org/.
Christopher Arnott can be contacted at [email protected].