Friday, May 07, 2010

Ashland Theatre Note: Pride & Prejudice

You may remember the Madison County rule of movie adaptation: to make a good movie adapted from a novel, you need a mediocre novel. Something like The Bridges of Madison County, say, is far more likely to be a successful movie than all those pious yawners from Merchant-Ivory. The reason is clear enough: start with a good novel and you'll have to leave too much out; you'll wind up with an audio-visual aid where the best the audience can do is to try to remain the absent good stuff.

Evidently it works for stage plays too. Pride and Prejudice, at the Angus Bowmer theatre in Ashland this week, makes it clear that you can take the story line and a good many of the astringent one-liners from Jane Austen's most beloved novel but you can't keep the subtlety, the nuance or (perhaps this is most important) the rhythm, the pacing, the feel for time and the change of seasons.

Facing down into this kind of a void, Ashland fell backward into what it knows best how to do: broad burlesque, with lots of good-natured almost-clowning. It worked in a way, but I suppose it worked best among those who didn't know anything about the novel beyond the Cliff Notes. Devotees of the novel--I sat through the show with a couple--on the available evidence were likely to find it a kind of desecration.

Exhibit "A" was the casting of James Newcomb as Mr. Collins, the fawning and frightened little time-server clergyman who is there to remind the heroine that there are worse things in the world than not being married at all. Newcomb's Collins is a hoot and it is not, strictly speaking, out of keeping with the character in the original. But Director Libby Appel allowed Newcomb to transform it into a star turn, a standup routine that became its own reason for being.

Exhibit "B" would be Judith-Marie Bergan as Mrs. Bennett, the daft and bewildered mother of all those marriageable young ladies. I see that Bergan is in the rota also this spring for Mistress Quickly in Henry IV and you have to wonder if she got her characterizations mixed up: it would be interesting to see if Bergan's Eastcheap inkeeper turns up as a befuddled Hampshire matron. In any event, her Mrs. Bennett has far more of the fishwife about her than you'd ever expect to find in a country house.

But Exhibit "C" would be the whole tone of the piece. No doubt it was funny and no doubt that Austen is funny. But Austen's wit is quicksilver, gone before you can catch it; Ashland's is one step down the line towards Curly, Moe and Larry. And perhaps more important, Austen's wit is sauced with an undercurrent of sombre unease. For step back and think for a moment--husband-hunting is inherently comic, but these five Bennett girls really do have a problem: fail in the marriage competition and they will find themselves--well, probably not exactly out on the street, but very likely dependent on the famously unreliable good graces of some relative stranger. Moreover Mr. Bennett: no doubt about it he is a witty man--he has some of the best lines in the novel and the play. But he has somehow arranged life so his nearest and dearest face a life of penury and he treats it all with an air of merry indifference. The genius of Austen is that you never quite forget unsettling ironies like this even while he is making you laugh.

There is another problem here, and this one may lie in the novel itself: Mr. Darcy, the young man of ten thousand a year who lies at the center of the action. Face it, Austen wasn't really very interested in her young men, except insofar as they provide furniture for the young ladies. This is excusable in a book where you can concentrate on so much else (although even in the book, you somehow sense that the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy is going to be one of the most tempestuous that Derbyshire has ever seen). On stage, Mr. Darcy has to be himself, and you find yourself thinking he might have done better had he tried to be someone else.

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