Pride and Prejudice

By Jocelyn McMahon

IF THERE WERE ever a fair assessment of family dynamics, social status, and relationships, Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice certainly offers an accurate one. Updating the language and overall vibe, Hamill’s modernized show sticks true to the themes of Jane Austen’s beloved novel and takes a candid look at the absurdities of love and the odd sport of romance through an unfiltered lens. Opening its 2019 season, this fast-paced, off-beat comedy follows the Santa Cruz Shakespeare tradition of keeping it simple. Casting only eight actors to fill fourteen roles, limiting costume changes to only the essential and skipping scene changes altogether, it ultimately focuses on what we all really came to see: the acting.

Staying true to the traditions of Shakespeare, the double, or triple casting in some cases, calls for an array of character changes, quick transformations of gender, and a merry-go-round of entrances and exits. The wig changes and minor costume bits help define who the actor is portraying in the moment, but ultimately it comes down to his or her ability to jump back and forth between roles. The cast flawlessly fulfill their multiple roles; watching Landon Hawkins go from the ever-coughing socially inept Mary to the charming heartthrob Mr Bingley in a matter of seconds is absolutely incredible. The switch contributes an element of absurdity to the farcical humor of the show.

Where the production did not scrimp was with its phenomenal sonic design. The sound effects, both live and recorded, added an essential dimension to the show, my favorite being the boxing bell sound, a great metaphoric symbol for the face-paced, brutal game of love. The playlist ventured outside the era, crossing genres and styles of the 20th and 21st centuries and adding another modern touch to the Hamill adaptation. (The iconic Beyoncé “Crazy in Love,” kept the house rockin’ throughout intermission.) The onstage piano that the actors take turns playing was also a nice touch.

Quick summary for those unfamiliar with the story. The play begins in the Bennet household where Mrs Bennet (Carol Halstead) is fussing over her four unmarried daughters (one less than in the novel) and the lack of a male heir to their estate. Three of the four are also fussing, but our protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet (Allie Pratt), cannot be bothered by the pursuit of a husband and the hoops a lady must jump through to climb the social ladder. Mrs Bennet will stop at literally nothing (her tactics are definitely a bit cringeworthy) to ensure her daughters marry well-off husbands before Mr Bennet passes and the estate is transferred outside the family. Mr Bennet (Allen Gilmore) is distant and seems to be impartial to just about everything, even his own passing. Mrs Bennet has no problem making a show of herself and her family, and insists that Mr Bennet get them an invitation to the ball that the new eligible bachelor in town, Mr Bigley, is throwing. The daughters attend the ball and here we meet the iconic Mr Darcy (Lindsay Smiling), best known for his wealth and complete lack of social graces. Afterwards Elizabeth continues to run into Darcy and he develops a liking for her, as she him, but the strong personalities clash and he seems unable to articulate his affection without insulting her social status. The story continues to follow the Bennet sisters and their potential suitors as they navigate classes and tackle the prospect of marriage from very different angles.  

Bold ladies are needed to fulfill the strong/durable female characters of Austen’s iconic 1813 novel, revolutionary for its time; a female author with strong female characters commenting on marriage and the choice to remain single in order to pursue personal happiness (gasp). As playwright Hamill is quoted in the director’s note: “We think of it as dated text, but the truth is, all these rules and behaviors around love, we still very much follow today. There are literally books out there called The Rules and The Game. And it’s particularly codified for young women, especially today, and I am a young woman who’s historically been very ambivalent about marriage.” These actresses hold their own.

Carol Halstead channels the buffoonery of the brassy Mrs Bennet wonderfully, the guilt-tripping words of a desperate mother land well and are hilariously relatable. Karen Peakes does well as Jane, definitely the driest of the characters in the script, while her croaking Miss De Bourgh in Act 2 was irresistibly laugh-out-loud-worthy. Lydia (Madison Pullins) appears to be the novice of the group, but her naiveté was still charming as the boisterous young sister and her “intoxicated” interaction with the audience made for a great gag.

Allie Pratt’s Elizabeth catches your eye off the bat; commanding the stage as quick-witted, multi-faceted and with humorous movement she seems able to do anything. Sarcastic and clever, yet charming and loving to those closest to her, Pratt channels the Pride and Prejudice heroine wonderfully.

The climactic moment when Darcy confesses his love and she rejects his proposal (known to many as the ‘rain scene’) was a disappointment. It is Elizabeth’s golden moment to shine in a romantically tragic scene that comments on love, prejudice and social class. Just as the depth of the moment is about to settle, Pratt goes for laughs instead of sticking to her guns. The script (or director’s choice, not sure) steals from the sincerity of the moment. It’s not that Pratt can’t channel that emotion, she just never really gets to.

As for the boys, shout-out to Ian Merrill Peakes, who switches it up between Mr Wickham, the charming (at least initially) officer, Miss Bingley, the jealous sister who has her eyes set on Darcy and heart against Lizzy, and Mr Collins the repulsive and pompous clergyman—Mr Bennet’s second cousin—who has come to marry one of the daughters. Peakes relies on his skilled physicality to juggle three very distinct characters, my favorite being the uproariously slimy Mr Collins. 

As mentioned before, Landon Hawkins had the quickest of transformations, flipping between Mr Bingley and Mary. Casting a male to play Mary was a great comedic choice. It sets aside the fact that Mary is a rather sad young woman with little hope at romance and frightens all who she approaches, even her own parents. She doesn’t speak often, but when she does there is definitely a channeled wisdom; she can teach them all a thing or two. The chivalrous heartthrob Bingley also came as a breeze to the very talented young Hawkins.       

Allen Gilmore captures the dry wit and subtle sarcasm of Mr Bennet well. A man hiding behind his newspaper, he pops out every now and again to make a comment. But he really gets to shine in the second act as he breaks out of his disassociated shell to defend Lizzy when she refuses to marry Mr Collins. A strong, and obviously experienced actor, Gilmore highlights the stage occasionally as Charlotte, the chattery but good-natured best friend of Lizzy who eventually marries Mr Collins herself.

Lindsey Smiling charms the audience as the oddly endearing heartthrob, despite his character’s back-handed compliments and harsh judgments. His version of Darcy comes across definitely as more jaded and socially awkward then pompous. Smiling’s subtle humor complements the character well; he isn’t trying to be insulting, it just comes out that way. His awkward dancing in Act 1 adds an endearing element to the character as well.

Smiling and Pratt play well off each other in their heated debate-ridden courtship. Physically the two are so mismatched (he towers over the extremely petite Pratt by a foot easily), but, as a rather odd couple, the physical mismatch seems to work in their favor. The two actors shine in the final minutes of the show; after having set their judgments aside, Darcy has redeemed himself to Elizabeth by rescuing her sister and they confess their affections. Elizabeth asks him a simple, but honest question: how she can know that he is the right one for her. He confesses that he doesn’t know, but explains that there is never a “perfect” match. This heartfelt moment was sincere and offers the audience a moment to reflect.

Ultimately, we are left asking what are we willing to do in order to marry out of our social status. Are we willing to leave behind our home and those we love to climb the social ladder? Hamill’s slapstick adaptation ditches the subtleties and goes for the laughs. It’s farcical, fast-paced and anything but boring. It lacks some of the endearing moments of Austen’s text, but overall it summarizes the key points and will appeal to a broad spectrum of audiences, a great pick to start the 2019 season of Santa Cruz Shakespeare.

Photo by rr jones

Hello Dolly!

By Philip Pearce

WAS THERE EVER a major American musical with a pedigree as meandering and wildly unpredictable as that of the show that’s just opened at Carmel’s Outdoor Forest Theater?

It began life as an 1835 English one-act called A Day Well Spent, which got expanded into a full-length Austrian farce called Einen Jux will er sich machen, roughly He Will Go on a Spree or He’ll Have Himself a Good Time, about two grocery clerks on an adventure in 19th century Vienna. A century later Thornton Wilder reworked the plot, adding a memorable matchmaking widow named Dolly Levi to a Broadway flop he wrote called The Merchant of Yonkers. It all would have ended there and then had Wilder not agreed to rewrite the script as The Matchmaker for the 1954 Edinburgh Festival in a production that starred Ruth Gordon and went on to a successful Broadway run.  Shirley Booth starred in the 1958 movie version. Jerry Herman then manipulated the play and movie events into a 2,844-performance Carol Channing stage musical which he re-titled, as if you hadn’t guessed, Hello, Dolly!  

If after all these years you still need a plot summary, it’s enough to say that widower Horace Vandergelder leaves apprentice stock clerks Cornelius and Barnaby in charge of his Yonkers Hay and Feed Store while he goes off to New York City to court an attractive milliner named Irene with the help of a noted matchmaker named Dolly Gallagher Levi. The two clerks see the boss’s absence as a chance to close down the store and head for their own secret do-or-die night in the big city, which they spend falling in love with Irene and her hat shop assistant Minnie and evading Horace in various New York hot spots. Dolly, meanwhile, works subtly to undermine Irene as a future wife for Horace, for whom she has her own matrimonial designs.  

Walt DeFaria has assembled and deftly directed a gifted, enthusiastic local cast, headed by two of our top comedy actor/singers. Gracie Moore Poletti is a whirligig delight as the scheming but lovable Dolly. Armed with a handbag load of business cards proclaiming her entrepreneurial power over every human need from dancing lessons to quick-dating (“I Put My Hand In”) she is wily as a snake but such a radiant ambassador for true love and fearless adventure that you can’t resist her. Poletti has a delectable energy and a keen, flexible soprano voice, and she leavens her skillful horseplay with Horace with several touching progress report soliloquies aimed at her late lamented husband Ephraim. It’s a gorgeous performance.

Then there is the multi-talented Michael Jacobs, as brilliantly grouchy and explosively confused in the role of Horace as he was sly but lovesick years back as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls

Alex Poletti is a high-spirited and appealing Cornelius, Adrian Clark is callow and winsome as his slightly more practical colleague Barnaby.

Rachel Bagby is a lovely, clear-voiced Irene Molloy and Tess Franscioni pipes up much too briefly as her hilarious hat shop assistant Minnie Fay, who seems only able to speak with the breakneck clarity of a well-oiled ticker tape machine.

The ensemble do some great work, including a colorful “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” number, a neat and noisy Broadway marching band parade and a deft, napkin-snapping precision routine by the waiters at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant as they prepare to join in their familiar show-stopping “Hello Dolly!” welcome to Mrs Levi. 

With all that acting energy and singing skill, I was sorry that this production’s design team sometimes hadn’t provided the kind of support this able company of players deserve. As Irene, Rachel Bagby, for instance, gives a charming performance as a joyously liberated young widow (more than your average number of bereaved spouses figure in this show). But she looks more like a scheming femme fatale in a severe and unattractive pencil-thin brown skirt and puffed sleeves.

Nicole Bryant Stephens’ set design uses convincing enough wheeled units to create scenes at the hat shop and the Harmonia Gardens eatery, but the set colors sometimes clash with Yvonne Bowen’s surrounding costumes, notably in the important Harmonia Gardens scene in Act 2. The joke of this sequence is that the renegade store clerks are entertaining ladies in one private dining nook while their bemused boss is entertaining a potential fiancée in another. The cubicles are each decked out with bright red curtains that open and shut, keeping one dinner party from spotting the other. Apart from being a bit awkward to manipulate and sometimes masking some of the diners from view, these curtains are a glaring shade of red. No problem, except that walls are a different shade and the big central stairway Dolly is about to descend is of yet another red shade. Dolly arrives for her big number wearing yet a fourth brand of contrasting red finery. The scene is admirably acted and delightfully choreographed. But the central character doesn’t stand out visually because she and virtually every surface or object in the set are all in clashing shades of the same basic color. More close advance planning between costumer and set designer would have given this fine production a lot more visual excitement.

The whole cast has a group energy and excitement that finally nudged a somewhat sluggish opening night audience into loud applause and roars of approval by the time all the plot points and tuneful melodies ended just before ten o’clock.