It’s no great secret among those who love me that I am a Janeite, or an avid fan of Jane Austen. I am, in fact, the regional coordinator for the Central California region of the Jane Austen Society of North America. Yeah, I basically run a chapter of a huge Austen fan club.
As such, I walked in to Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley at Fresno State with a predisposition to be generous. But also, I walked in with OPINIONS. Those opinions, however, are multi-layered and in various areas of the Venn diagram that is my life. Here are my quick thoughts:
The show is bee-yoo-tee-ful. With elegance and attention to detail, the design elements fold together to create the lightly hued, delicately furnished aesthetic we associate with Austen’s Regency style. The costumes are perfectly period and the set has a bright, clean style that shows opulance without heaviness. The effect perfectly sets off the style of clean lines and buoyancy we associate with Austen.
The play itself is a bubbly confection of fun, romance, and wit. If you crossed a better-than-usual Hallmark Christmas movie with a bonnet-drama romance, this is what you’d get, although I believe in this instance the period setting elevates the Hallmark movie aspects of the story somewhat. (Please note: I’m kind of a sucker for Hallmark movies as well as bonnet-dramas.)
Director Brad Myers stages the action with economy and clean blocking, avoiding messing up the works with too much elaborate staging. He rightly lets the characters and relationships speak for themselves, and speak they do. The student actors were trained in the dialect they used and while a bit uneven at times, the accents were sturdy enough to get the job done.
As for the acting, the ensemble did a fine job of embodying the proprieties of the time period without being bogged down by them. At times, it felt a little rushed, however, and I wished they’d allow some of the emotional a-ha moments take hold, rather than rush through to get through the mechanics of the scene. But on the whole, that is a minor detail in an ensemble that creates charming moments with each other and brings forth distinctive characters with out being over-the-top about it. Evangelia Pappas as Mary Bennet and Ian Jones as Arthur de Bourgh have a particularly sweet and dear chemistry that makes you want to root for them as a couple. (Teya Juarez and Jimmy Haynie also deserve mentions for their character work in this piece.)
As an Austen fan, I want to encourage other Janeites to attend this in the next four days if they possibly can. As a play, it is a plausible and enjoyable sequel/pastiche that I believe Austen would have enjoyed. There are familial quirks and sharp comments enough to be an honor to Austen without trying to compete with her. And the story is more than just a love story, but one that brings to mind themes of self-determination, the importance of making sound choices, and taking an active role in one’s own life. Themes that are familiar to any Austen lover.
My husband and I are two fairly irrepressible nerds about many things, and there were aspects regarding Mary and Arthur’s romance that struck a chord with us. And a few details that stuck out to us because. . . well, because we’re nerds about those things.
- Were champagne flutes period or would they have use coupes?
- Why were two of the women characters not wearing white stockings when the others were? It looked like they were in their naked legs/feet and stockings would have been pretty mandatory – especially in the dead of winter in Derbyshire.
- Has any nearsighted person ever whipped their glasses off in order to get MORE serious in their conversation? I pretty much need my glasses all the time.
- And the joy of Lampshading things like the absence of Kitty, the obvious changes in character from the novel to the play of Mary Bennet and Anne De Bourgh, and things like how the male characters pretty much sit around and wait for the drama to come to them.
- Also: the fact that Christmas trees aren’t period for Regency Christmas celebrations. I appreciated the running jokes regarding that!
All in all Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, was an excellent time for anyone looking for a little fun holiday cheer, but especially for Austen lovers who are looking for something fresh in their holiday offerings. I look forward to a local production of the sequel to the sequel: The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley in a year or two!
The show runs for four more performances:
December 12, 13, 14, 15 at 7:30 p.m. at the John Wright Theater on the Fresno State Campus. INFORMATION AND TICKETS AVAILABLE HERE!