Milwaukee Rep: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
On Sunday, November 25th, we went to the Milwaukee Rep’s Powerhouse Theater to see Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley, by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon. This was a very funny, sweet and charming play, and we enjoyed it very much.
When the advertising tagline is to the effect that Mary Bennett, the bookish one of the five Bennett sisters from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, finds romance, and you look at the cast list in the program and see that the only unattached male is the new character Arthur De Bourgh, the ending is pretty well telegraphed, although, as the characters themselves note, there are often a lot of turns in the path to a meant end.
It is roughly two years after the end of Pride and Prejudice, and the Darcys are having a family Christmas at the great house of Pemberley. They have invited Charles and Jane Bingley, Lydia Wickham (but not her odious husband), Mary Bennett, Mr. and Mrs. Bennett (who don’t actually appear on stage), Mary Bennett, and Darcy’s school chum, Arthur De Bourgh, nephew of Elizabeth’s bete noire, Lady Catherine. When we hear that Arthur has acceded to title and fortune after the death of Lady Catherine, and that he has been a perpetual student, it is even more obvious that he and Mary are Meant For Each Other. Also, there is the fact that, in two years, Mary has become less satisfied with the role of superfluous woman, and is open to the idea of romance, however unlikely her prospects appear.
Of course it’s difficult getting Nerds to mate in captivity: Arthur isn’t even thinking about matrimony when he arrives at Pemberly, being rather flummoxed by his new responsibilities. Neither he nor Mary have any idea how to conduct a normal courtship. Flirtatious Lydia makes a nuisance of herself, throwing herself at the newly wealthy Lord, and, the dead hand of Lady Catherine reaches out to complicate matters.
The play was excellently acted. Rebecca Hurd as Mary Bennett is very fine, and Jordan Brodess in the role of Arthur showed himself wonderfully funny, being in particular an excellent physical comedian. The other Bennett sisters, Elizabeth (Margaret Ivey), Jane (Sarai Rodriguez), and Lydia (Netta Walker), were all very good, and their respective characters quite recognizable from Jane Austen. They were well supported by Yousouf Sultani as the lordly but increasingly human Darcy, and Fred Geyer as the kind and forthright Bingley. Deanna Meyers was also very good in the role of Ann de Bourgh, whose Lady Catherine-inspired hauteur masks her desperation at an uncertain future. The casting may have had an unintended interesting effect: Ms. Ivey, Ms. Rodriguez, and Ms. Walker are all women of color with “healthy*” figures (Ms. Meyers is a petite Asian), which underscores pale, thin Mary’s position as the odd one out.
Stage direction by Kimberly Senior was interesting and creative. Interludes of movement and music advanced the plot more rapidly than dialog could, such as the scene in the first act where the Darcys and the Bingleys are being annoyingly affectionate and getting on Mary’s nerves, or the book-throwing sequence in the second act, wherein literally everyone is frustrated with the state of affairs.
The set design, by Courtney O’Neill, was handsome, and incorporated Elizabeth’s very fashion-forward Christmas tree, which becomes a running gag as the characters react to the idea of a tree in the drawing room. Costumes by Mieka van der Ploeg were very attractive and becoming.
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