BYU’s Department of Theatre and Media Arts’ “Pride and Prejudice,” Pardoe Theatre, through April 4, $9-$17, 801-422-2981 or byuarts.com/tickets
PROVO — With its superb character development and descriptions, clever and playful dialogue and wonderfully paced plot, “Pride and Prejudice” is considered among the few perfect works in literature. Yet according to the readers' website BookRiot, the novel was a surprise dark horse No. 1 on a Pretend to Have Read survey list.
Following Melissa Leilani Larson’s 2011 stage version of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion,” the playwright was commissioned to bring “Pride and Prejudice” to the Pardoe Theatre in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication.
It’s a pleasure to report how effectively Larson has adapted “Pride and Prejudice.” Her script is rich and humorous, showing her deep love of Austen’s treasured work of romantic fiction. It certainly cannot replace the page-by-page delight of the full novel, but it’s a wonderful introduction and may easily influence audiences to shift “Pride and Prejudice” from the “pretend to have read” to the “read and enjoyed” list.
Theatergoers are engaged in each scene and respond with enthusiastic laughter to the humorous portions.
Rather than amplify the Elizabeth Bennet/Fitzwilliam Darcy despise-each-other-then-can’t-live-without-each-other romance and limit the colorful interactions of the other Bennet sisters, as some adaptations have, Larson makes the bold decision to present each of the main players. And her characters are distinctive and fully formed, with their traits intact. It’s a monumental achievement.
Barta Lee Heiner also demonstrates her admiration and robustly stages the production. To allow audiences to savor the witty wordplay, the pacing must be carefully considered and the director must vigilantly oversee the performers. It is here that this staging admirably succeeds. With little exception, the actors understand their roles and portray vivid and relatable characters at a just-right pace.
Leading the cast is Karli Hall as the lively and quick-witted Elizabeth Bennet, the character “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print” as Austen congratulated herself. Hall reveals Lizzy’s intelligence and disarming appeal as she tosses off barbed observations with great assurance and gradually comes to recognize the nobility of her suitor, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Ted Bushman less impressively portrays Darcy. His character frequently looks peeved with little hint of his admiration.
Two other vigorous performances come from Austin Jensen and Jacob Swain. Jensen’s Charles Bingley is charmingly debonair and Swain is a comic delight without stepping outside the defines of his William Collins role each moment he’s on stage.
One design notion works very well. As characters are introduced and then when they are fruitfully coupled, a projected gilded frame briefly appears as they pose inside. The glaring misstep in the staging is the small array of tall platforms at the rear center of the stage. The actors climb hidden stairs leading to these perches, perform briefly and then maneuver down to the main stage level. These levels are too high and too far back, distancing the audiences from easy interaction during these scenes.
Otherwise, the hand-manipulated semi-circle rotating sets first introduced in “Persuasion” work well to approximate different locales. The concept would be more successfully realized if all the essential elements could have been incorporated without actors appearing onstage to assist with the scene changes.