Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker
Why commission yet another new version of Jane Austen's best known, often adapted novel? Maybe because it's part of a Sarasota-Manatee counties-wide project to get everyone to read, analyze, discuss, and enjoy a single classic work in all its forms. Here a drama goes, as the project's name insists, "Beyond the Book." But actually, Catherine Sheehy's undistinguished rearranging of Austen's words and simplistic editing and insertions come to little more than bits of direct-to-the-audience narration introducing or commenting upon dramatized scenes. The "more" is added by director Mark Rucker and choreographer Michele Lynch in the form of dances that allow for conversations, visualizations of relationships, and changes in mood and modes of action. All well and good, dramatic movement is nevertheless more than matched in effectiveness by that of scenery and props. I can recall teaching the book Pride and Prejudice in Freshman English; this production would be an appropriate "text" for Furniture Moving 101.
Kate Hampton as Elizabeth steps downstage center to key the story as one of five sisters whose fluttery mother Mrs. Bennett (Sharon Spelman, wonderful at being long-suffering) is obsessed with getting them well married off. The favorite of her bookish father (believable Douglas Jones), Elizabeth stands out in wit and will, made obvious by her tailored denim-blue dress when every other woman is in frilly white or pastels. (Katherine Roth's costumes lack Asolo Rep's usual savoir faire.) None of the sisters bear familial resemblance, and as the eldest and Elizabeth's favorite, Jane, sweet Alix McEachern Jones is hard to tell apart from the youngest, rash Lydia (flirtily played by Olivia D'Ambrosio as a disaster waiting to happen). Since early 19th century English law passed inheritance of estate to the next male kin, Mrs. Bennett feels at the mercy of boring Minister Collins (caught in all his obsequiousness by David Breitbarth). She's reserved Jane for rich Bingley (whom Jaime Tintor brings out as a nice guy) , having taken a nearby manor retreat from London. His friend Darcy (stiff but handsome hulk John Pasha) not only seems to be proudly disdainful of Elizabeth but also an accomplice, with sophisticated Kris Danford's catty Caroline Bingley, in keeping her brother away from Jane. The unlikely bonding of Elizabeth and Darcy is underscored by the lack of chemistry between Hampton and Pasha.
Against adversity and adversaries Elizabeth scores one triumph after another. She has to fend off her mother's endorsed proposal from Mr. Collins, who turns to her best friend Charlotte. (Jenn Walker keeps Charlotte dignified as she reasons her acceptance.) Elizabeth almost gets sidetracked romantically and in her perception of what Darcy is really like by the treacherous Mr. Wickham, embodied with deceptive charm by Bryant Richards. Before she learns the truth, leading her to see that mutual love with Darcy is neither improbable or impossible, she also has to deal with his imperious aunt, Carolyn Michel's crusty, autocratic Lady Catherine de Bourgh. In scenes that move as quickly as the scenery -- although action seems so slow -- minor characters like the other Bennett sisters, Darcy's sister, and sundry relatives of the principals' families appear as if footnotes. The script and production remain so bookish except for the dance that one wonders how much they offer audiences "Beyond the Book." In my view, they offer less. Of course, that could be a strategy to send one back to Jane Austen's work itself. A fine second choice would be a video of the BBC series starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth.
Asolo Rep, which commissioned the script for this "world premiere" adaptation, has Michael Donald Edwards as its Producing Artistic Director. Designers were: for the effective Sound and Composition, Fabian Obispo; for Scenic Design, Aleksandra Maslik, with Lighting by James D. Sale.