Bells are ringing on the snow-globe inspired stage of The Civic Theatre’s Pride and Prejudice, as young women assemble around a table filled with golden varieties of the instrument. Their fascination quickly turns into urgent, yet elegant, hoarding. A more composed young lady picks up a tiny, rather plain looking, bell almost left behind. She stares at it wishfully before she hides it in her pocket…
Hello, Lizzie. Long time, no see.
As this prologue, and its ringing, end the Bennets settle into their onstage home to a string quartet version of the 2019 electro-pop hit “Dance Monkey.” It’s the correct way to press all the right buttons for the 2021 Jane Austen lover.
Since the pandemic started, Austen has gained a particular kind of traction. The option to meet prospects face-to-face vanished, and dating seemed to regress to a more romantic (albeit physically distant) time. From funny to hopeful, memes, tweets and articles flourished on the subject. The phenomenon climaxed with the record-breaking Bridgerton, currently the most watched show in Netflix’s history. The series delves on the lives, and more-erotic-than-Austen, romantic hopes of young Britons in Regency London. It’s also set in the same year Pride and Prejudice takes place.
One of Bridgerton’s trademarks is the use of string versions of recognizable pop hits, like “Dance Monkey.” Their inclusion (alongside a dozen additional selections, including Ocean Away from the Bridgerton TikTok musical you didn’t know existed) makes the Civic a ten-thousand-pounds-a-year-worth winker to Austen contemporary audiences. It also shows how theatre can, and should, be part of multimedia storytelling universes, while still being just theatre.
The actors wear face masks that match their outfits and alternate in removing them for certain lines. The masks dangle as unobtrusively as grandma specs until they go on again. Anne Beck choreographed each movement following CDC procedures.
The stage is set up à la multi-camera sitcom, the play was recorded from the empty audience. Director Emily Rogge’s set-up makes it easy to stay invested in Kate Hamill’s adaptation, while occasionally focusing on specific details. The simplicity of the space and complementary pops of colors, from backdrop to wardrobe pieces, creates a captivating presentation.
The female actors easily dominate the stage. Megan Tiller does beautifully as Lizzie, with a precise Frankie Bolda as her best friend, Charlotte Lucas. The genuine warmth in their scenes feels the most Austen in the entire show. Bolda, also doubles as Mary Bennett. She’s one of six performers playing dual roles.
Jennifer Sims knows how to fully occupy the stage and Mrs. Bennet’s shoes. She does so in a boisterous manner that makes it quite easy to side with Darcy. Kelsey Vanvoorst fearlessly assumes the comedic relief as both Miss Bingley and Mr. Collins. Gender-bending a character like Mr. Collins is as fascinating as it is entertaining, but it doesn’t go beyond the blatant clashing of Austen’s usually inconspicuous brand of comedy.
Aside from Mr. Wickham, of course, the main enemy of this production is the use of a laugh track. For the Feb. 12th live stream, the track was “manned” by The Civic’s Executive Artistic Director, Michael Lasley, who introduced the tool to the audience and assured them that it would only be used in the parts he genuinely considered deserving of a laugh.
As a promoter of camaraderie, especially in socially distant environments, a laugh track is a great idea that needed a more democratic and, dare I say, female approach. There were worthy comedic moments that did not get the benefit of the track, while others, especially at the end of act two, were overindulged. But technicalities do little to overshadow the genuine charm of this Pride and Prejudice.
- Pride and Prejudice adapted by Kate Hamill from the Jane Austen novel. Streaming at the Civic Theatre.