Love is a game—or deadly serious—or both at once, depending on which character you ask in NextStop Theatre Company’s production of Pride and Prejudice. The game motif is evident early on, as the cast engages in a lively game of blindman’s buff with volunteers from the audience, and carries through the show. Also evident early on is the raucous energy that will dominate the proceedings.
Playwright Kate Hamill and director Megan Behm have taken the familiar elements of Jane Austen’s best-loved story and turned them up to eleven, also throwing in a few double entendres and a handful of contemporary touches. (Some of the actors’ moves on the dance floor, executed to classical music with a modern beat, are unexpected but seriously impressive.) Lydia and her mother get tipsy and run around screeching like the proverbial banshees; Elizabeth and Darcy meet not-so-cute when she spills her drink on him; the sickly Anne de Bourgh is a weird gnome-like creature so muffled in blankets we never see her face.
One character’s slight cough, mentioned in the book, becomes so nagging and so loud that one fears she’s going to die of tuberculosis by the end. The always affable Mr. Bingley is portrayed by Ben Lauer as a human golden retriever. I’m being more literal than you might suppose: other characters are constantly tossing a ball with him and ordering him to come, sit, and stay.
All this presents a formidable challenge to the cast, who frequently have to talk over each other, keep several conversations and scenarios going at once, change costumes at lightning speed, and juggle multiple roles, occasionally switching genders. Sometimes the cross-gender roles are played matter-of-factly (Alyssa Sanders as Mr. Bennet), sometimes for laughs (Lauer consistently bringing down the house as a perpetually disgruntled Mary Bennet).
The actors handle it all with expertise and good cheer. Angeleaza Anderson shifts seamlessly between the wild Lydia and the haughty Lady Catherine. Matthew Shea is a prim Caroline Bingley and a wonderfully Gollum-like Mr. Collins when he’s not being a superficially charming Wickham. Renea Brown, when she’s not hiding under the blankets as Anne, is a serenely lovely Jane (even if, as she’s paired with this version of Bingley, one is never quite sure whether she’s trying to catch a man or adopt a puppy). And Sanders is as warm and sympathetic playing Charlotte as she is dry and detached playing Mr. Bennet.
Special praise goes to Rebecca Speas, who took on the role of Mrs. Bennet with only three days’ notice. Understandably not quite off-book yet, she nevertheless gives a performance that was outstanding even among this strong cast.
Katelyn Manfre’s Elizabeth and Jacob Yeh’s Darcy manage to keep things grounded amid the chaos going on all around them. Lizzy here comes across as more of a Jo March, discontentedly struggling against the system, than the Elizabeth Bennet we’re used to seeing, wittily resigned to her place in it. Nonetheless, both Manfre and Yeh convey genuine growth in maturity and understanding over the course of the show, and the interactions between them are compelling.
The NextStop stage crew, as usual, skillfully transcend the limits of their small space. Particularly noteworthy was the stage itself. Scenic designer Carrie Cox had it done in tiles that each contained a letter written by one of the characters, which made a lovely effect both up close and far away. And costume designer Judith Harmon provided Regency costumes that were both gorgeous and efficient, easily dressed up or down from scene to scene by the use of accessories.
It must be said that anyone who’s sensitive to noise and boisterousness may end up with nerves as frazzled as Mrs. Bennet’s. But those who are in the mood for an upbeat, no-holds-barred romp through a classic will find exactly what they’re looking for.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Katie McCreary, Lighting Designer; Kevin Alexander, Sound Designer; Alex Wade, Properties Designer