I’ve been in theatrical productions since I was six years old, and for some years I was a professional musician. In addition to solo and choral work, I managed to earn an Actor’s Equity card. A few years later, sometime in the early ‘70s as I recall, my husband was Chairman of the Performing Arts Council in New Haven, Connecticut. One day, he said to me, “There’s a summer theater group that wants to open a professional theater in New Haven. They’re playing in Clinton. (About 25 miles down the shoreline from our home in Branford). “Let’s go take a look.” We saw the play, decided we should encourage the director’s idea. My husband ended up giving them an office, a secretary, and a phone for somewhere around a year before the idea finally came to fruition. He also allowed the director, Jon Jory, to “cry on his shoulder,” as my husband put it, every Thursday night until the Long Wharf Theater was born. I’m happy to say, though it was situated in a meat-packing warehouse along New Haven harbor, it opened to critical success, and is still hale and hearty in 2011.
Pride and Prejudice - the Performance
On Wednesday evening of this week I attended a performance of Pride and Prejudice in play form. I wasn’t expecting much as the Orlando Shakespeare Theater is a long way from the superior professional theater I enjoyed while living in New Haven and, later, in the Sarasota area. But how could I not go to see yet another version of P&P?
But from the opening moment, I could feel they’d nailed it. The production sparkled. Using the device of characters speaking directly to the audience, they managed to squeeze in most of Jane Austen’s story and do it with style. One amusing incident, hopefully unique to last night’s performance: “Kitty” was ill, evidently with no understudy, leaving the Bennett’s with only four daughters. Some of the actors coped better than others. Mrs. Bennett still alleged that she had five daughters, while Elizabeth Bennett, when asked how many sisters she had, returned, “three at present.” In the dance sequence Mr. Bennett heroically danced alone, and one line promenaded with three, instead of four, across. I can only presume Lydia and Mary spoke Kitty's lines as well as their own. All in all, adroitly done, and a compliment to the cast.
Only Charles Bingley came off rather badly, his passive nature exaggerated to the point of stupidity, not helped by a few added phrases that smacked of turn of the 20th century. (“Smashing!” for example.) But I was possibly the only one there who would spot an anachronism like that. All the other characters came right off the pages of the book. They were amazingly “right” for their parts.
The staging of the dance sequences—and there were more than a few—was particularly well done, with a variety of circle, line, and quad dances that were sometimes the center of focus, sometimes only a few dancers gracefully performing as a backdrop for dialogue and action downstage. On one occasion, the dancers performed behind a scrim curtain, a shadow accompaniment to the action on stage.
The setting used one two-story mansion to represent all the homes from Longbourne to Mr. Collins’s vicarage to Pemberly. A width-of-the-house balcony provided extra space for action and re-actions. For example, when Elizabeth was reading Darcy’s letter, he appeared on the balcony, taking over the reading of portions of the letter. This device worked well in a number of scenes. The only furnishings were straight-backed white wrought iron chairs, which cast members constantly rearranged to provide “furniture” for each setting. Even “pianofortes.”
As someone who has helped costume theater productions since I was “knee high to a grasshopper,” I’ve frequently criticized the costumes at Orlando “Shakes.” Last night was another nice surprise. The elders were costumed in late 18th c. garb, the younger cast members in Regency dress. Lady Catherine’s outfit was magnificent, though I was amused to see that her skirt had been made from someone’s wedding gown.
To solve the constant change of scene problem, cast members wore the same garb throughout, no matter if they were at a ball or wandering the grounds. But, I hasten to mention another clever touch. When they were “outside,” birds twitted in the background.
One more aside: last night, the center portion of the three-sided theater was mostly taken by a special group. Evidently, many of them were not as familiar with P&P as those of us along the sides. They roared with laughter over lines the rest of greeted more like old friends. Nice to know Jane Austen was delighting a new audience as well as Austen buffs like me.
Between acts it finally dawned on me that I was seeing the result of a brilliant adaptation of Austen’s novel - no wonder the actors were so comfortable with it - and I should look at the program to find the name of the person who wrote it. And, oops, the past came back and hit me in the face. The adaptor: Jon Jory, founder of the Long Wharf Theater. To be certain it was the same person, I asked the House Manager after the performance, and he confirmed it. I only wished my husband were alive to know that Jon was still using his theatrical gifts to create great theater, even after all these years.
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