Austen's Pride

The cast of 5th Avenue Theatre’s sumptuous production of “Austen’s Pride,” playing through Oct. 27.

While visiting England in the summer of 1986, I drank tea in the garden of Jane Austen’s home. Her home had been converted into a museum or some sort of tourist attraction. I recall her novels, including “Sense And Sensibility” and “Pride And Prejudice,” were displayed and for sale in the kitchen. I never read any of her books. That English tea was my first and final encounter with the world of Jane Austen, until the recent world premiere of “Austen’s Pride,” playing at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre through Oct. 27.

A quick internet check reveals that “Pride And Prejudice” has been adapted ad nauseam. The creative team of Lindsay Warren Baker and Amanda Jacobs, writing music, lyrics and libretto, have devised a fresh and innovative spin on Austen’s old “classic.”

“Austen’s Pride” presents “Pride And Prejudice” from the inside out. A quick prologue shows us Jane Austen (Laura Michelle Kelly) heartbroken by a love affair. Fast forward sixteen years and Jane is now the successful, albeit anonymous, author of “Sense And Sensibility,” but resistant to love and happy endings in real life. She doesn’t think much of “Sense And Sensibility.”

“It’s froth,” Jane admits to her sister Cassandra, “but it’s good froth.” Jane longs to write something more substantial. Spirited Cassandra (Cayman Ilika) is rather fond of a first draft called “First Impressions” that Jane abandoned long ago. But her publisher is pleading for a new novel and her family will be destitute if she doesn’t sell something soon.

“First Impressions” was, of course, later re-titled “Pride And Prejudice.” The characters come to life, spinning around inside Jane’s mind. Her creative impulses surge partly out of desperation, and partly out of her own need for personal reclamation. She attempts to make peace with her past and solidify her future by giving her characters the “happy endings” she initially finds abhorrent.

The characters from “Pride And Prejudice” sing and dance with Jane, and tell her how to write and rewrite the plot. This gives rise to several comic situations. The production’s comic apex comes when the frazzled character of Mrs. Bennett, played by the hilarious Michele Ragusa, begs Jane not to prematurely erase her from the story in a song called “My Poor Nerves.” It is a little comedy tour-de-force that “Austen’s Pride” could use a lot more of.

Mrs. Bennett is the comedy relief, and Mr. Bennett, played by Clifton Davis, provides inspired moments of dry wit. By some absurd law of 1831 England, a family estate can only be given to a male heir. Since Mr. Bennett has daughters, they must be wed wisely and wealthily before his death. Mr. Bennett is certainly robust and in good mind and spirits, but Mrs. Bennett seems to always be in a tizzy. Who and how the Bennett daughters will marry forms the basic plot of “Pride And Prejudice.”

The production is a sumptuous spectacle, right down to the last detail. The scenic design by Josh Zangen employs a revolving cyclorama. The set spins around and the characters go here, there, and everywhere in a jiffy. The costumes by Melanie Taylor Burgess are arresting and vivid. The men look dandy and the ladies look lovely. Everything and everyone on stage adds up to the most diverting “eye candy” imaginable.

Young Jane Bennett (Manna Nicholas) falls quickly in love with the wealthy Charles Bingley (Gregory Lee Rodriguez). Everything goes well until Bingley’s “friend,” the insufferably arrogant Mr. Darcy (Steven Good), places an arbitrary barrier between Jane and Charles. It has something to do with Darcy feeling that Jane’s affections for Charles are not “sincere” enough. He also thinks that the Bennett family lacks propriety. So not only is Darcy insufferably arrogant, he is a control freak on top of that.

Generations of readers have apparently found Mr. Darcy to be a “romantic ideal.” I can’t imagine why. Steven Good certainly fills the “romantic leading man” requirements quite well, but I was more fascinated by Gregory Lee Rodriguez as the dreamy Mr. Bingley, and John Donovan Wilson as the duplicitous George Wickham. George is an extremely handsome and extremely shady character, who has a rather messy personal history with Mr. Darcy.

The plot gains considerable momentum when Jane’s older and more dynamic sister Elizabeth, played by the enchanting Olivia Hernandez, arrives at the Netherfield Estate for a society ball. Darcy is instantly attracted to Elizabeth’s non-conformist spirit; probably because she is the only lady who does not instantly fawn over him. Instead, Elizabeth and Darcy engage in a very long game of “aversion-attraction.” You can see where the plot is going long before Jane Austen gets there herself. Darcy finally overcomes his pride when Elizabeth overcomes her prejudice. Everything is so very proper, neat, tidy, and ultimately tedious and tiresome.

The vivacious Cayman Ilika as supportive sister Cassandra Austen brings energy and life with her every time she appears on stage. The only thing wrong with the role of Cassandra is we do not see enough of her. Miss Ilika also appears briefly as Charlotte Lucas, a friend of the Bennett family who marries Mr. Collins, a rather odious clergyman played by Eric Ankrim.

I think the title role of Jane Austen is the most difficult one of all. Laura Michelle Kelly is almost always on stage, but she is often in the background as characters spin around her. The plot comes out of her head. “Austen’s Pride” is interesting on a subtextual level, showing how creative writing is a form of therapy and catharsis for the author. Miss Kelly gives a controlled but well modulated performance. She subtly conveys how Jane is battling with inner angst and much more. She displays intensity and conviction at the right moments, but mostly she holds back until the end. Her performance is all the more admirable for its restraint.

“Austen’s Pride” unfolds like a “Classic Book Of The Month Club” selection, brought to vivid life on stage. It will mostly appeal to those who love Regency Era romance novels. Although I drank tea decades ago in Jane Austen’s garden, “Austen’s Pride” is definitely not my cup of tea. It is, however, extremely lovely to look at.

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