Review: ‘Pride and Prejudice’ at Annapolis Shakespeare Company

Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Pride and Prejudice is an impeccable dance, an elegant minuet from start to finish. Every element works gracefully with every other, producing a pleasing, harmonious whole.

Laura Rocklyn as Elizabeth Bennet in Annapolis Shakespeare Company's production of 'Pride and Prejudice.' Photo by Joshua McKerrow.
Laura Rocklyn as Elizabeth Bennet in Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s production of ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ Photo by Joshua McKerrow.

This is not surprising, as Director Sally Boyett, ASC’s Artistic Director and clearly the moving force behind the show, is a former Broadway and New York City Ballet dancer. She has imbued with grace every aspect from the dancers’ hand motions to the choreography for moving the chairs which form almost the only set pieces to the drape of the curtains at the back of the stage (set design by Boyett and Joshua McKerrow).

From the moment the audience encounters the thrust stage, adorned only with three sets of draperies, a projection of a damask pattern on the rear wall in pleasing tones of daffodil and blue (projections of period wallpaper and paintings by McKerrow), and a single Regency chair, the feeling is one of peace and elegance, without a hint of stodginess. There is freedom and room for all manner of things to happen on this stage, within the confines of a certain decorum.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of the most delightfully funny books ever penned — for readers who understand subtle humor. In this stage adaptation by Jon Jory, the humor is preserved and condensed. Jory has placed many of Austen’s narrator’s wittiest lines in characters’ asides to the audience. He manages to telescope the plot into two hours, and Ms. Boyett’s open staging, which uses movement and changes of costume to indicate place and time, keeps it moving at almost mazurka pace.

The costumes, also by Boyett, deserve special mention. They are exquisite. Due to the swift pacing, the main characters, especially Elizabeth Bennet (Laura Rocklyn), can only fully change during Intermission, but different scenes are distinguished by changes of jackets, hats, and gloves, which are donned only when appropriate. As on the dance floor, in this 3/4 staging, the costumes must be pleasing from the back as well as the front, and these are gorgeously detailed in every aspect.

The actors take up the dance with gusto. Dexter Hamlett perfectly captures the father Mr. Bennet’s dry wit and gruff affection. His youngest daughters, Kitty and Lydia (Molly McIntyre and Julia Messer) are suitably silly, vain and thoughtless, and their rapid switching between pas de deux and rivalry is a treat. Margaret Anne Murphy capably embodies the stodgy bookishness of the middle daughter, Mary — as well as the unromantic pragmatism of Charlotte Lucas. Grace Brockaway breathes life into the almost preternaturally kind eldest daughter Jane, allowing the audience to feel how a person could still wish only the best for someone who has ruined her every chance at happiness.

The only slight faux pas among the family seems to come from Nancy Linden as Mrs. Bennet, one of the loopiest comic characters in literature. From the moment she bursts on to the stage, burbling about the young gentleman of good fortune (who therefore must be in want of a wife) who has taken up residence in the neighborhood, it is difficult to tell if Linden is delighted or distressed. The joke with Mrs. Bennet is that she irrepressibly vents every emotion, and her rapid shifts between giddy joy and despair are the source of the comedy. She is usually played as bubbly and thoughtless, the true mother to her ditzy youngest daughters, but in this portrayal she seems almost always on the verge of tears. Linden might have been more effective as the dour Lady Catherine.

That role is filled by Roslyn Ward, who imbues it with all the gravity her youth allows but does not quite rise to the heights of entitled scorn that give the role its comic edge. Ms. Ward also plays the Housekeeper, and here we can commend the work of Vocal and Dialect Coach Nancy Krebs, who helps the actors who double roles distinguish their characters through their accents and tones. One is Rachel Montgomery, who differentiates the supercilious Caroline Bingley from the wise Mrs. Gardiner through her voice even more than her appearance. John Pruessner triples capably as Mr. Lucas, the somewhat deaf Mr. Gardiner, and the odious, pompous, obsequious Mr. Collins. Although this role is usually played as callow rather than mature, and might have been doubled by one of the actors playing ball guests or interchangeable officers, having him played by a man old enough to be the father of the women he courts emphasizes the desperate situation women faced whose only option for financial security was marriage.

As for the various other suitors, William Goblirsch, Jr. portrays a charmingly tongue-tied Mr. Bingley, and Ian Charles gilds his Mr. Wickham with suitable charisma, while letting the audience see through cracks in the façade to the (does one need to say SPOILER ALERT in reviewing a 200-year-old story?) scoundrel beneath. Daniel Beason, as the misunderstood hero Mr. Darcy, excellently conveys the humanity under the struggle between pride and love.

And then there is Elizabeth Bennet, whose dainty slippers are very hard to fill. As one of the most beloved heroines in all of literature, who carries the entire story on her slender shoulders, Laura Rocklyn does not disappoint. Whether in ensemble dances, pas de deux with Mr. Darcy, or solos, she glides among wit, charm, anger, self-doubt, mortification, surprise and love. Her Lizzie is intelligent as she is lovely, with the perfect sly smile and sharp sense of humor. Rocklyn, a member of the Jane Austen Society, helped with dramaturgy, and her and the director’s respect for the details and social customs of the Regency inform every move in the show. Characters sit, stand, bow and curtsey just as they should. They stay the proper distances apart. They maintain the rules of decorum, so that when the rules are broken the shock is palpable. And yet they let the audience see the human beings beneath the dance, in a tribute to the power of subtlety.

Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Pride and Prejudice is a graceful cotillion from start to finish, a treat for the eye, the ear and the heart. An evening is not long enough for such a delight. See it.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

Pride and Prejudice runs through April 21, 2019, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 2 pm, at Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Main Stage Theatre, 1804 West Street, Annapolis, MD. Purchase tickets at the door, by phone at 410-415-3513, or online.

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Jennifer Georgia
Over the past four decades, Jennifer has acted, directed, costumed, designed sets, posters and programs and generally theatrically meddled in Maryland, Princeton, London, and Switzerland. She has made a specialty of playing old bats – no, make that “mature, empowered women” – including Mama Rose in Gypsy, the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella at Montgomery Playhouse; Dolly in Hello, Dolly! and Carlotta in Follies in Switzerland; and Mrs. Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, and Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady in London. (Being the only American in a cast of 40, playing the woman who taught Henry Higgins to speak, was nerve-racking until a fellow-actor said, “You know, it’s quite odd – when you’re on stage you haven’t an accent at all.” Her most recent indomitable female was in a student-directed film where she played the monster Grendel’s Mother – a role last embodied on film by Angelina Jolie in a CGI coat of gold paint; Jennifer took it in a rather different direction. (She has no idea why she keeps getting cast as these imposing matriarchs; actually she is quite easy-going. Really). She has also directed shows including You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and Follies, and most recently Woody Allen’s Mr. Big in the MP One Acts Festival. She is also the Publicity and Promotions Director for Montgomery Playhouse. In real life she is a speechwriter and editor.

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