Jane Austen in South Coast

Ah, what are men to rocks and mountains … and classic novels brought to life? With new artistic director Marc Masterson in place at South Coast Repertory (SCR), Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” marks the start of the 2011-2012 season.

I must admit, tackling such a classic as “Pride and Prejudice” is not an easy feat. From Austen’s moving literature to Hollywood’s sweeping portrayals, it’s easy to get swept up in the great expectations surrounding this play.

The team at SCR, though, manages to meet those expectations head on. Rather than keeping the stage adaptation constrained to the standard interpretations of the novel, SCR integrates flashes of modernism and plenty of laughs.

True to the popular story, the play remains centered on the patriarch Mr. Bennet, his talkative wife Mrs. Bennet and their five daughters, who are all of marriageable age. When the wealthy Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy visit their neighborhood, Mrs. Bennet is determined to play matchmaker and set her eldest daughter, Jane, up with the friendly Mr. Bingley. Unbeknownst to all, Elizabeth, the strongest and most independent of the girls, eventually falls for the handsome, but initially aloof, Mr. Darcy.

SCR’s unique touches were visible right from the start, as the audience was immediately met with bright strobe lights and pounding rock music. A punk teenager, completely decked out with pink highlights in her hair and vintage Converse shoes, entered and began playing air guitar. It was definitely a far cry from the typical serene, tranquil opening to Austen’s masterpiece, but it was a captivating introduction nonetheless.

Once her mother entered to hand her an e-reader, it was soon evident that “Pride and Prejudice” would be told through the eyes of a teenager.

This point of view turned out much better than I originally anticipated it to. As the story of love and family played out, the teenage girl remained on stage. At times it did seem awkward since she seemed to be an eerie ghost following each of the characters around England.

That being said, it was refreshing to see her reactions to all the events within the novel, mirroring the way I felt years ago when I first picked up the story. She acted as a modern tie-in, proving just how powerful “Pride and Prejudice” really is to withstand the test of time and work its way into our hearts today.

Nevertheless, it was Jane Carr acting as the colorful Mrs. Bennet and Scott Drummond playing the irritating Mr. Collins that truly set SCR’s adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” apart.

Carr established the perfect depiction of Mrs. Bennet, from her incessant chatter about wealthy husbands and her “poor nerves” all the way down to her British accent. The sheer absurdity of her character’s thoughts warrants amusement, but Carr’s portrayal elicited stretches of laughter from the sold-out crowd. The nervous anxiety and unfortunate manners were apparent throughout, as were both her love for her family and her shock at failing to predict Jane’s ultimate feelings toward Mr. Darcy.

Drummond, on the other hand, was the annoying cousin, who is in line to inherit the Bennet estate simply because he is a man. He puts his own twist to Mr. Collins’ ridiculous lines. What sets his performance apart, though, was his ability to manipulate the annunciation of his words. He spoke quickly when needed, yet understood the time for which to draw out his words and cleverly interact with the audience. The presence of Mr. Collins is a nuisance for the Bennets, but Drummond elevates his character to draw the viewers in and keep them engaged.

Throw in Mr. Collins’ unfashionable outfits, horrible posture and extreme lack of physical fitness, and you have a remarkably hilarious, one-of-a-kind character.

Their performances were so good, in fact, that those of the other characters could almost be overlooked. Despite being two-and-a-half hours long, the beginning of the play felt rushed and major plot points flew by.

Elizabeth never had the opportunity to fully develop as much as a main character should. The characters of Elizabeth, Jane and Mr. Darcy had limited depth and, therefore, did not properly resonate with the audience.

Furthermore, relationships were hastily established, particularly surrounding Elizabeth and Jane, as well as Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, the plot’s two central connections. In fact, the love between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy seemed rather sudden and forced.

Yet, while the timing of the play could be improved to add a level of depth to the fundamental characters, seeing the novel enacted was still a very pleasurable experience. The intimate setting of the stage itself allowed every actor’s voice to reverberate powerfully.

Amid a tale of discombobulated families and the pursuit of true love, SCR incorporates the perfect touch of comedy and light humor to Austen’s classic.

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars