Sunday, November 26, 2017

"Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley" at the Jungle Theater

Writing a sequel to one of the most beloved novels in English literature is a daunting and risky task. Audiences have such attachment to the original, and it could go wrong in so many ways. But playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margo Melcon have gotten it so, so right in their theatrical sequel to Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice. In a sparkling new production at Jungle Theater (just a year after its premiere in Chicago), Miss Bennet: Christmas* at Pemberley is very reminiscent of Jane Austen, but also fresh and modern and new. It's a witty, smart, utterly charming new play that celebrates not just literal sisterhood, but women working together and supporting each other, both onstage and behind the scenes. I can think of nothing we need more at this moment in time.

Miss Bennet takes place a few years after Pride and Prejudice ended, leaving eldest sisters Jane and Elizabeth happily married to the Misters Bingley and Darcy, respectively, and younger sister Lydia not so happily married to the scoundrel Wickham (see program for helpful family tree). Kitty, the youngest sister, is in London and absent from the play, leaving bookish middle sister Mary as the heroine of this story. And what a heroine she is. She has grown from the comedic foil of P and P, a girl with her nose always in a book and playing music badly, to a smart, curious, talented woman who knows who she is and what she wants in life, even if that doesn't fit with society's (and her family's) expectations.

The play takes place over a few days, with the sisters happily reuniting at the Darcys' home, Pemberley, for Christmas. They haven't seen each other in some time, so there is a bit of getting reacquainted. Mary at first feels "invisible" next to the closeness of her elder sisters' bond, but they soon recognize her growth and her worth, and include her in their circle of sisterhood. Even Lydia, as awful as always in her silly, flirtatious ways, has a deeper side that she's hiding, and eventually joins the happy sisterhood. The drama comes in the form of one Lord Arthur de Bourgh, heir to Darcy's recently deceased Aunt Katherine, who comes to Pemberley on route to the estate he has just inherited. It turns out that he loves books and facts and pragmatism as much as our dear Mary, and the two seem perfectly suited for a happy life together. But like any good Jane Austen story, there are a few obstacles in the way of happily ever after, which just makes the getting there that much sweeter.

I've often said there's nothing Christina Baldwin can't do (soaring opera, slapstick comedy, heart-breaking drama, and everything in between), but now she shows us that her long list of talents also includes directing. She's one of several female actors making their directing debut recently, something that is so necessary to put more women in positions of power in theater (and hopefully, by extension, the world). Her directing debut is a great success, in which her individual talents as a performer in music, comedy, and a poignancy of emotion are evident in the production as a whole. The show strikes the perfect balance between light and funny, and a depth of emotion. Even the scene transitions continue the storytelling, with the servants (marvelously played and sung by Becca Hart and Guillermo Rodriguez ZermeƱo) busily preparing the estate for the holidays, singing all the while. From start to finish it's a very consistent, polished production.

Mary and Arthur (Christan Bardin and JuCoby Johnson,
photo by Dan Norman)
And this is the very definition of a dreamy cast (including an adorable tiny real live dog)! I've been a fan of Christian Bardin for several years, but this may be her best role yet. Her portrayal of Mary is so real, so heartfelt, so funny and awkward. And she's perfectly matched in JuCoby Johnson as Arthur, another one of my faves, who is here so charmingly awkward, fairly jumping out of his skin at times. Mary/Christian and Arthur/JuCoby are definitely one of my favorite couples in #TCTheater this year.

The rest of the cast is wonderful as well, charged with the difficult task of playing characters we know and love so well from many other incarnations. And it's also a beautifully diverse cast, as is necessary and appropriate in this post-Hamilton world, and it works brilliantly. Sun Mee Chomet and Adia Morris are a lovely Elizabeth and Jane, respectively, the closest of sisters but very different. Kelsey Didion (fresh off of a very different role - Mercutio in the Guthrie's Romeo and Juliet) is a swirl of skirts and bouncing pony tail as her too bubbly nature hides dissatisfaction at home. James Rodriguez and Sam Bardwell are both spot on in their portrayals of the very different husbands Darcy and Bingley, the former with all of the appropriate formality and reserve overlaying a deep love for his Elizabeth, the latter positively exuberant in his love of wife, baby, family, and life in general. Last but not least, Anna Hickey is a commanding presence as Anne de Bourgh, Arthur's cousin, haughty and opinionated, but not without heart if you look closely.

the cast of Miss Bennet, gathered around the pianoforte
(photo by Dan Norman)
Set and costume designer Sarah Bahr says in a video on the Jungle website that designing a Jane Austen period holiday piece is a designer's dream, and it's also an audience's dream. The Jungle is famous for their brilliant sets in their intimate theater space, that to me are like looking into a perfect little diorama, and this is another one of those. A perfectly charming early 19th Century English estate, piano nook on one side (which Christian does a brilliant job of pretending to play), tiny library on the other. A few stairs up in the back can be seen the newfangled German tradition of a tree (indoors!), that gets increasingly more decorations as the show goes on. The women are dressed in gorgeous empire-waist gowns, the men in tails, with matching coats, hats, gloves, shoes. A dream indeed!

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley concludes another excellent season at the Jungle, the second for Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen (next year the Jungle will move from a calendar year season to a September-August season like most of #TCTheater). Following the lovely Latinx family dramedy Anna in the Tropics, the hilarious and heart-breaking Lone Star Spirits, the charming and magical musical Fly by Night (I loved it so much I saw it twice), and the super creepy thriller The Nether, Miss Bennet really is the cherry on the delectable sundae that is the Jungle Theater's 2017 season. If you haven't been to the Jungle lately, you're missing out. Head to Uptown before December 30 to experience this charming, witty, heart-warming tale of love, family, and sisterhood.

*You can read about all of the holiday shows I've seen here.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.