SALT LAKE CITY — Two hundred years after her death, people are still talking about English novelist Jane Austen and her writing — perhaps more than ever.
Her most popular novel, “Pride and Prejudice,” has sparked retelling after retelling, spinoff after spinoff and loads of fan fiction — fanfiction.net hosts more than 4,600 “Pride and Prejudice” entries.
One of those spinoffs, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” is about to take the stage at Salt Lake’s Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, Nov. 30-Dec. 15, but according to one of its stars, this piece of theater is more than your run-of-the-mill fan fiction.
“It's full of joy and silliness, but there are also very moving parts to the show as well. It's not all just fun, fan-fiction-type thing,” said Jamen Nanthakumar, who plays Arthur de Bourgh in Pioneer Theatre Company’s upcoming production. “It is actually a very powerful and moving piece, but just under the umbrella of everything that we love about Jane Austen and the sisters of 'Pride and Prejudice.'”
Written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, “Christmas at Pemberley” brings audiences back into the world of “Pride and Prejudice,” though instead of focusing on the quick-witted Elizabeth and the brooding-yet-dashing Mr. Darcy, “Christmas at Pemberley” focuses on the most unlikely of the five Bennet sisters: bookish Mary.
“I think (the play is) really exciting because people have already this idea of (Mary) and are going to come in with those conceptions and judgments, and then they're going to just be so genuinely surprised by the journey and how far she's come along and how much she's grown,” said Elizabeth Ramos, who stars as Mary Bennet in PTC’s production.
Set two years after Elizabeth and Darcy’s blissful union, “Christmas at Pemberley” finds four of the five Bennet sisters married — all except Mary.
“She's been basically by herself learning the pianoforte and reading a lot, but you see (from the beginning of the play) that … she's also been going into deeper thoughts and wondering about her life and what will become of her and her circumstances,” Ramos said.
When Elizabeth invites her family to Pemberley for Christmas, Mary accepts the invitation, but an unexpected visitor — Arthur de Bourgh — shakes things up a bit.
Loyal “Pride and Prejudice” fans will recognize Arthur’s last name but will know that he is not an original Austen character. According to Nanthakumar, Arthur is cousin to Anne de Bourgh and nephew to Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
“Jane Austen loves to throw in a kind of a person out of the blue that comes in and kind of stirs things up, and that is more or less my function in the show — to enter as that distant cousin that inherited some such land and stuff that then has to come in and stir things up with the Bennets and kind of get the ball rolling on some of the new adventures that will ensue in this sequel,” Nanthakumar said.
Like Mary, Arthur is a studious man, and the two find common interest in Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s “Philosophie Zoologique.” What ensues is a story Nanthakumar and Ramos both insist fits comfortably within the wider Austenverse.
“It is a new play, but it’s a testament to the playwrights … that they truly did capture the Jane Austen dialogue and the style of each character so well that it feels like it could have easily been a sequel back when the book was written,” he said. “It is soon to become a classic, surely.”
Although the characters are already considered classics to Janeites, Ramos said you don’t need to be a die-hard fan to enjoy “Christmas at Pemberley.”
“Of course, there's so much in the play for those that love Jane Austen. There's little trinkets of not only ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ but I think they'll notice other novels and other stories in there of Jane Austen's, so that'll be really great for them,” Ramos said. “But it's still a story of love and family and has such comedy, so for those who are not familiar with (‘Pride and Prejudice’), they're still going to have a really great time.”3 comments on this story
Nanthakumar echoed Ramos’ sentiments, emphasizing that, at the very least, audiences of all Jane Austen familiarity levels can at least relate to the feeling of nostalgia that permeates both the holiday season and Austen’s beloved characters.
“It's truly about the characters and the changes that they've gone through the past two years,” he said, “set under the beautiful umbrella of the holiday season that warms our hearts just a little bit more.”
If you go …
What: Pioneer Theatre Company’s “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley”
Where: Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East
When: Nov. 30-Dec. 15, dates and times vary
How much: $30-$45