Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
By Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Directed by Meredith McDonough
For tickets & schedule:
Marin Theatre Company
Mill Valley, CA
November 25 – December 18 (Extended to December 23), 2016
RATING: 5 of 5 stars
(December 22, 2016)
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is ‘excessively diverting’; having read and experienced a plethora of Jane Austen inspired works, I can vouch that it ranks at the pinnacle. Characters feel like themselves, the dialog crackles with lighthearted banter, and the love story is genuine and amusing, creating the perfect Christmas gift for ‘Janeites’. Playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon were inspired by an author who was daring enough to write about women in the early 19th century, examining their social position and calling into question practices such as entailment, where the estate was left to the nearest male relative, rather than daughters, while creating vivacious, strong characters who are universal across race and time.
A road trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival brought the two writers of Miss Bennet into a discussion of the lack of holiday plays—endless productions of A Christmas Carol cannot be the future of theater. Their casual conversation turned to taking notes in earnest for an original play. “We do our best work in the car” Melcon quipped in a Q&A Discussion. The result is a tightly paced love story “what if” the characters from Pride & Prejudice met for Christmas several years later. Mary Bennet’s quiet observation and studies have transformed her into a mature and dryly witty young woman, Jane is expecting a child, and Elizabeth sends the household topsy-turvy with her exotic spruce tree decked with candles and bows.
Jane Austen’s quintessential Mr. Darcy (Joseph Patrick O’Malley) has become comfortable in his new situation; O’Malley has an easy grace and gentleness in his portrayal. Cindy Im’s Elizabeth sparkles with holiday spirit, eager to see her family happy and still very much in love with her husband, which does not prevent her teasing him. Laura Odeh’s Anne de Bourgh’s brief appearance is as stately and ferocious as the late Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Odeh’s formidable presence would frighten anyone out of a drawing room. Rather than keeping characters precisely like their personalities in the book, there is growth in both Lydia and Mary. Lydia (Erika Rankin) hides a miserable marriage under her flirtatious exterior, and nasty asides turn into an acceptance of her sisters’ love when they try to help her. Rankin flits in and out of scenes with boundless energy, leaving chaos in her wake.
Martha Brigham’s Mary Bennet is curious and precise; she must have definitions secured, and strides through life as a continuous formal debate, which irritates or inspires, depending on who she is in contact with. Her sisters have ignored her for years, and Mary realizes she is restless in her assigned role in the family, but is unsure what to do about it. Brigham’s comedic timing and clipped delivery of deadpan lines in response to the action is riveting, leaving the audience in hysterics, while also pitying her lot as the sidelined middle sister. It is Adam Magill’s Arthur de Bourgh, an original character, who steals the show with his awkward attempts at romance. Symbolic to the love story’s uncertain course, Mary and Arthur own identical books with different color covers that are swapped back and forth, dropped, and mistaken for each other throughout the scenes. Arthur de Bourgh is a lanky, socially inept Oxford student who has spent his life in libraries, rather than the company of ladies, and is at a loss when he realizes that Mary has secured his affections. Magill draws on his considerable talent at physical comedy, and is a believable addition to the canonical core of characters.
In addition to brilliant writing and a stellar cast, Miss Bennet’s scenic design and costumes are spectacular. Erik Flatmo’s set recreates the Regency era with intricate medallion moldings, colorful décor, a cozy library, and snow gently falling behind the windows. Callie Floor’s pastel and festive gowns add cheerful gaiety to the scenes, and Arthur’s oversized hat is a humorous touch. Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is the new standard in holiday plays. It celebrates individuals who are a force of nature, while advocating that strong personalities can find a way to live together with kindness and understanding. It reminds us to follow our dreams, even if they do not seem practical at the time, and push the boundaries of what others expect us to be. The end of its run was sold out weeks in advance for good reason—do not miss the opportunity to enjoy this Christmas treat.