Pride and Prejudice

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Roundhouse Theatre
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Editorial Review

A tired ‘Pride and Prejudice’

By Nelson Pressley
Friday, Dec. 2, 2011

The holiday sweepstakes have begun on local stages, and the Round House Theatre’s family-friendly gambit is “Pride and Prejudice.” The fa-la-la slotting makes Jane Austen a bit of a Dickens, with that haughty Mr. Darcy a stand-in for Scrooge.

Sound tired? It is, even though Blake Robison’s big cast glides amiably through its paces in Austen’s evergreen chronicle of matchmaking going right and wrong. With her big eyes and Mona Lisa smile, sharp Kate Cook is magnetic as the whip-smart Elizabeth Bennet. Michael Brusasco looks like an angry eagle as the severe Mr. Darcy; if he’s too harsh out of the gate, he warms up awfully nicely, and the romance eventually gets its expected glow.

Cook and Brusasco seem pretty seasoned, and they should: They recently played these roles for Robison at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. This production is otherwise different, though. The cast is peopled with talented Washington actors who make particular hay with this fast-moving adaptation’s humor.

Among the pleasures: Rick Foucheux, riotously dry as the sensible elder Bennet; Catherine Flye, fizzy as the addled mother of five marriageable daughters; Clinton Brandhagen, brimming with Fezziwiggian cheer as the handsome young Bingley; and Susan Lynskey, a glamorous adder as Bingley’s prejudiced sister. There are more. It’s a highly capable group.

But the show — the choice, really — is not inspired, and the staging leaves the actors nowhere to go and not much to do. Robison and the frequently splendid set designer Narelle Sissons underline the domestic theme by placing a huge toy of a house in the middle of things; it rotates and has clever giant folding doors, but it doesn’t use the stage so much as eat it up. It’s an almost hostile occupation of the show, forcing the performers to dully trek to the same wee area downstage center again and again.

Even the delectably arch confrontation between the equally prideful Elizabeth and Darcy at the end of the first act goes cold, just when the characters are supposed to be heating up. It’s wan, and not exactly what you want for the holidays: Austen writ small.

(Adapted by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan. Directed by Blake Robison. Choreography, Ilona Kessell; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lights, Kenton Yeager; sound design, Joe Payne. With Heather Haney, Laura Rocklyn, Betsy Rosen, Alice Gibson, Valerie Leonard, Brandon McCoy, James Konicek, Danny Gavigan, Michael Tolaydo, Jjana Valentiner, Elizabeth Jernigan, Tyler Herman, and Robbie Gay. About 2 1/2 hours. Through Dec. 31 at Round House Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East-West Highway. Call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org

Taking artistic license with Austen

By Jessica Goldstein
Friday, Nov. 25, 2011

As first impressions go, few are more fantastic than Elizabeth Bennet's initial read of Mr. Darcy, with whom the Jane Austen heroine immediately falls head over heels in hate.

The feisty feminist is a great role for an actress to play, and Kate Cook gets to do just that in Round House Theatre's production of "Pride and Prejudice."

Bennet "knows how to play the game society has set up," Cook says, "and she's so aware of what it is, she can do so with this winking, with her tongue in cheek."

Actor Michael Brusasco - Darcy to Cook's Bennet - says the stage production brings out a humor that's less evident in the novel.

"I think there's something laughable - laugh-at-able - about Darcy, in a live performance. . . . The audience is given the chance to laugh at his social awkwardness, at his inability to communicate. Some of the things he says, they're just cringe-worthy," Brusasco says.

Joseph Hanreddy, who adapted the novel for the stage with J.R. Sullivan, says that despite a respect for Austen's "sparkling wit [and] perfect sentences," he had to feel free to take liberties with the text. "As you read the book, you're aware that it's a perfect piece of art unto itself," he says. "Almost anything you do to it is going to make it less perfect."

His trick for getting over the intimidation? "I pretended that [Austen] told me, 'I never intended this as a novel; it's just 300 pages of notes for a play that I never got around to write. Use whatever you think would be good for theatrical value.' "

With Austen's blessing imaginarily obtained, Hanreddy ditched the narrator, whose voice, he says, "is integral to the novel, but I thought [the play] would be more powerful without it." The dozen-plus cast members compensate for the absence of that omniscient perspective with new dialogue, acting out scenes the book only describes.

Austen's enduring appeal is as difficult to explain as it is to ignore. Film adaptations of her books, and her life, pop up with the regularity of summer superhero flicks. There seems to be no shortage of ways to reinterpret her work.

Cook hypothesizes that part of the allure of Austen's world is exactly what Elizabeth found infuriating: rigid gender roles.

"We're living in a moment when we're not clear on how to be men and women in ways that honor the other gender," Cook says. "And that has bled into dating, courtship and marriage. . . . There aren't a whole lot of ground rules, and that's exhausting. So I understand when we want for a time when the way love unfolded was prescribed to some degree. . . . Elizabeth Bennet is so incredibly stuck, and I don't think we crave that. But clarity is always nice."

Not that there isn't plenty of sweeping, throwback romance for "Pride and Prejudice" purists. The story "says something in particular about the best kind of love," says Blake Robison, Round House's producing artistic director and "Pride and Prejudice" director. "That's something we have to hold on to. That core message about the heart."