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PRIDE & PREJUDICE

PRIDE & PREJUDICE

Reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

The Encinal Drama Department, never one to back away from a challenge, has successfully taken on Jane Austen’s PRIDE & PREJUDICE.

In a theatrical context, there exists a continuum of risk taking ranging from informed confidence, to ungrounded hubris and on to reckless abandon.

Director Gene Kahane may have hugged the shore of hubris on this one, but at the same time he signaled his unflagging trust and confidence in the cast and crew.

As they set sail across the proscenium, he obviously set the yardarm high, proclaiming that success would be their only port of call.

Imagine the odds of an amateur production company taking on a major opus—which required five hour-long episodes when performed for public television—and compressing it into a two act play that would not exceed the attention span of a high school audience nor be reduced to a dramatic narrative.

An adequate plot synopsis of the play alone is over 1200 words, and such a summary is so skeletal that it provides for little character development.

As is a director’s prerogative, MR Kahane rightfully pared the script down to the essentials, leaving enough meat on the bones so that his earnest troupe had plenty of opportunity to showcase their thespian talents.

As the curtain rises . . . wait . . . what curtain?

The set design was so expansively spacious—yet intimate with the audience—that the need for a curtain was obviated.

As the Klieg Lights came up, we were greeted by the tempered strains of violin music provided by Marquise Robinson, first violin and concert master of the Encinal Drama Department.

What? Is this FIDDLER ON THE ROOF?

By coincidence the play parallels TEVYE THE DAIRYMAN by Sholem Aleichem.

In Aleichem’s tale, Tevye, the father is trying to marry his daughters into advantaged positions within Anatevka; in Austen’s book it is the over-reaching, meddling, manipulating mother—MRS Bennet—who is the match-maker of Longbourn.

Just as our planet has two poles, the true north pole and the magnetic north pole, so too does this excellent production.

One pole, consistent with Jane Austin’s original intent, is Elizabeth Bennet, perhaps the true pole.

Elizabeth is the protagonist, the second eldest of the Bennet brood; twenty years old, with character, confidence, intelligence and willfulness cantilevered well beyond her easily measured years.

But alas Lizzy is saddled with the proclivity to judge on first impression.

She reinforces her opinions, engaging in confirmational psychology, sifting through a conflicting body of evidence discarding all that argues against her conceits and embracing all that supports her predilections.

Hence Elizabeth single handedly accounts for the “prejudice” of the title.

Kinga Vasicek is simply stunning as Elizabeth Bennet.

Like an overzealous district attorney she argues with biased passion, unsubstantiated conviction, blanket condemnation and compulsion.

When she finishes dressing down Mister Darcy, the jury i.e. the audience is ready to drag Darcy to either the pillory, the confession booth or to the scaffold.

Miss Kinga’s persuasive and powerfully delivered misguided indictments are augmented by her stern and roiled countenance; one wonders how does she get her face to flush and the veins to standout on her temples when expresses stage anger and mock ire?

Miss Kinga’s role as Elizabeth afforded her opportunities to square off with, dress-down and dismantle nearly every character in the play; by the final curtain the audience is convinced that Miss Kinga’s next stop should be Berkeley’s Boalt Hall.

One also wonders if the character Miss Kinga unleashes could ever be able to shelve her contentiousness for the sake of a domestic tranquility with Mister Darcy.

In the absence of an epilogue, we will never know the answer.

The other pole, perhaps the magnetic pole—although to set the record straight, no one is confirming nor denying allegations of up-staging—is the tremendous performance of Tina Burgdorf as Mrs. Bennet.

Miss Burgdorf’s character—perhaps based loosely on Austen’s Mrs. Bennet—is absolutely a riot; every development in the Bennet family fortunes becomes a melodrama catapulting Burgdorf’s Mrs. Bennet on a soaring, hyperbolic emotional arc.

True Austen’s matriarchal Mrs. Bennet is frivolous, excitable and narrow-minded, and her manners and unbridled social climbing are an embarrassment to Jane and Elizabeth but Burgdorf exaggerates these minor character flaws into hilarious parodies reminiscent of Saturday Night Live comedy sketches.

As the stage adage has it, “there are no small roles in theatre.”

Great acting and a willingness to run with a character—indeed hijack a character—succeeded in inflating Miss Burgdorf’s Mrs. Bennet into a Macy’s Parade Float; she elevated a romantic gothic novel into highly enjoyable modern entertainment.

Almost as ballast for the unmoored Mrs. Bennet, Zachary Bailey plays Mr. Bennet; a character described as a patriarchal gentleman commanding a sarcastic and cynical sense of humor that he uses to irritate and neutralize his wife.

Given our Mrs. Bennet, can we fault Mr. Bennet if he prefers to withdraw from the never-ending marriage concerns of the women around him rather than offer up constructive help?

True to his character, Zachary delivers his well measured lines with low modulation and steady inflection as if to avoid igniting his highly volatile wife; in this respect Burgdorf and Bailey are a perfect pairing for the stage.

Beatriz Algranti plays the pivotal role of Jane Bennet, the catalyst that breaks the Bennet family out of its provincial doldrums and lurches it forward into the vagaries of matrimonial dice rolls.

As is revealed later into the play Darcy tried to scotch Bingley’s plan to marry Jane because he observed “no reciprocal interest in Jane” for Bingley.

Here may lie a glitch in the script.

Contrary to Darcy’s observations, Miss Algranti’s radiant, effulgent and sustained smile for Bingley—as played by Chase Lee—dismantles Darcy’s credibility as a witness.

Miss Algranti’s Jane is a veritably beacon of luminous infatuation; every time she is within eyeshot of Mr. Bingley she radiates romantic love.

Chase Lee is the love smitten, handsome counterpart to Miss Algranti’s Jane; to his acting credit Mr. Lee achieves a certain blissful obliviousness that only Eros and young love can perpetrate on the uninitiated.

Austen’s Jane is arguably the most beautiful young lady in Netherfield; her character—which Miss Algranti has captured with precision—contrasts sharply with Elizabeth’s; Jane is sweetly demure.

Jane too is prejudiced; only she strains to see only the good in others.

Another Klieg Light in this show is Lizzy Duncan; she superbly plays Lydia Bennet, the youngest and most wayward of the Bennet sisters.

Miss Duncan is arguably the best piece of casting in the entire play.

Her character Lydia, is barely 16, is frivolous and headstrong; she enjoys socializing, especially flirting with the officers of the local militia.

Miss Duncan, possibly coasting on the elfin enchantment of her twinkling eyes, signals her character’s casual disregard for the strictures of convention and . . . ahem . . . the moral code of her society.

Lizzy’s blithe smile, lithe gait and insouciant expression collectively signal the audience that her Lydia is devoid of any inkling of remorse for the disgrace she causes her Victorian family.

As Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, Mario Jimenez is the master of ambiguity and transformation.

Faithfully portraying Mr. Darcy’s initial arrogance, contemptus mundi and haughty pride, Mario deludes the audience in to believing every accusation and invective launched by rush-to-judgment Elizabeth and the perfidious Mr. Wickham.

Mr. Darcy’s aloof decorum, dislike of dancing and small talk, and exacting rectitude are understandably construed as excessive pride.

Darcy makes a poor impression on strangers—particularly Elizabeth—yet he is respected by those who know him well.

Mr. Jimenez’s acting provides for a certain transparency that reveals to his audience that Darcy has more than one dimension and that the true Mr. Darcy is in fact a noble being.

As Darcy and Elizabeth are forced to be in each other’s company, Mr. Jimenez begins to effuse a certain romantic glow, signaling an expanding romantic interest in the naively and forgivably prejudiced Elizabeth.

Ryan Borashan is delightful as the nefarious Mr. Wickham, pouring his perfidious venom into the eager ear of Elizabeth.

Wickham was a childhood friend of Mr. Darcy and now, as an officer in the militia, he is superficially charming and smarmy; just as Elizabeth is wrong about Darcy so too does she misjudge Wickham.

For all the wrong reasons Wickham and Lizzy form an erroneous alliance.

Mr. Borashan’s Wickham displays a convincing, yet duplicitous, charm that earns him the privilege of running off with the bright-eyed Lydia and marrying her.

Again, no epilogue informs us on the outcome of that union.

Several frosty characters, like large monolithic hailstones, litter Netherfield Park and its environs; chiefly amongst them are Caroline Bingley and Lady Catherine.

Caroline Bingley is played with cryogenic frigidity by Caroline Campbell.

Miss Bingley is the snobbish sister of Charles Bingley—Charles, along with Mary and Kitty Bennet all suffered a horrific accident when the director’s hedge trimmers, which he used to hew down the prolix script, went amuck excising poor Charles, Mary and Kitty from the play entirely; they are now known as the desaparecidos.

Miss Bingley has a dowry of twenty thousand pounds and harbors hopelessly misplaced romantic intentions for Mr. Darcy; she is viciously jealous of Darcy’s growing attachment to Elizabeth and is disdainful and rude to Elizabeth.

Miss Campbell is so convincing when performing the condescending snobbishness and vile jealously of the rich, that we eagerly await tax increases for anyone who earns more than we do.

Even more chilling is Cienna Johnson’s portrayal of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

We learned that several people in the orchestra section had frost bitten toes due to their proximity to the set and Miss Johnson.

As Miss Johnson veritably hissed her threatening lines to Elizabeth, one could imagine icy vapors billowing with her every vituperation.

Lady Catherine, as personified by Miss Johnson, reinforces stereotypes of the wealthy leisure class and those with inherited social standing.

Thanks to Miss Johnson’s glacial performance, we are now psychologically prepared to boost taxes on inheritances and tax the daylights out of the trust funds of haughty, domineering dowagers like Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her ilk.

Rarely when actors are double cast do they appear on stage simultaneously as both characters, but Assistant Director Tait Adams breaks that taboo; she played both Mr. and Mrs. Gardner at once.

While Mrs. Gardner was three-dimensional, poor Mr. Gardner was merely two-dimensional, was always forced about by his wife and never spoke without Mrs. Gardner speaking first.

Tait Adams exuded a degree of stage confidence rarely evidenced in amateur productions; her delivery was well chiseled and clearly articulated.

There were several times that the quality of the acting in this play was indistinguishable from professional stage acting—certainly Miss Vasicek’s heated denouncements and Miss Burgdorf’s high blown histrionics—Miss Adams indisputably reached that plane.

Necessity or resourcefulness placed Laura Gomez in the androgynous role of Mr. Collins: an obsequious boot-licker to his employer: her haughty highness the Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Miss Gomez ably transmitted Mr. Collins’ exaggerated sense of self-important and even more vividly Mr. Collins’ pedantic nature—Miss Gomez should consider public education someday.

Supporting actors of this thoroughly enjoyable production included Linnea Arneson, Jess Vicman, Skye Chandler, Megan Jones, Gabe Lima, Brad Barna and Alexandra Barajas.

While this reviewer approached the marquee with a certain amount of misplaced trepidation, he was delighted by the creative spontaneity and vitality of the show.

You may have missed Hendrix at Monterey, Janis at the Fillmore West, Bob at Newport, the Stones at Altamont, hopefully you did not miss a superlative PRIDE & PREJUDICE at Encinal nor will you miss the upcoming DINING ROOM and HAIR, THE MUSICAL.

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