Cracking the veil of a new season on the heels of an exiting Ted Pappas, a newly brandished Artistic Director, Marya Sea Kaminski is at the helm as she puts a firm stake in the ground as a risk taker with The Pittsburgh Public Theater’s season kick-off production of Kate Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice; a classic Jane Austen tale of unrequited love, angst, and undeniable acceptance that relationships are, at best, wars of attrition masked in a roller coaster of emotion.
To understand theatrical risk taking, one must understand the theater dynamic at The Public, and the boss-level chess move a production of this nature disrupts the delicate Eco-system of a traditional play house. Pittsburgh in general is no stranger to off-the-cuff theater. Quantum and City Theater have a more artistic nouveau aura, begging for non-traditional shows which push the boundaries of society norms.
The Public, however, elicits a more classically vintage crowd with a defined, and very present age bracket of traditionalists who would, I assume, call themselves theatre purists. Not withstanding, surely performances like last season’s Equus make an argument that The Public is not afraid to produce risqué theater, and 2016’s A Servant to Two Masters delivered some naughty humor, but the narratives were tethered in a somewhat safe zone, and did not serve as a disruptive force within the construct of the audience.
Hearing the cheers, jeers, bumbles and grumblings during Pride and Prejudice made one thing evident, a mark had been made to not only add depth to traditionalists, but also to lure in a new demographic of theater goers who repel into culture as entertainment, as not to be confused with newbies who see Wicked once a year in New York. (Wicked is great, but you know.)
Nevertheless, I shall dismount from my soapbox. Ladies and Gents, Pride and Prejudice.
The story follows a very unique Bennet tribe, consisting of the extremely hands-off Mr. Bennet (Ashton Heyl), helicopter parent of the century Mrs. Bennet (Elena Alexandratos), beautifully innocent Jane (Ashley Bufkin), sharp-witted Lizzy (Simone Recasner), undeniably awkward Mary (Andrew William Smith), and the human representation of a squirrel on RedBull, Lydia (Emma Mercier).
Each girl, driven by mummy Bennet’s relentless obsession with financial solvency, is solely focused on finding a wealthy suitor and eliciting a marriage proposal. As one would expect, the follies and failures of an overbearing mother, disconnected, yet present father, and ragamuffin collection of spinster sisters would result in disastrous calamities along the way, as told by the very well-equipped cast.
Most of the actors doubled as other characters in plain sight, much to the enjoyment of the audience. I was caught off guard by the blatant disregard for secrecy and gentle embrace of overt transparency, but once I got on board, it was raucous. Other tippy elements of the production made for a seamless transition from classic to comedy.
Ashton Heyl offered up a delightfully dissident father figure in Mr. Bennet. With a staunch opposition to whimsy and a firm grip in reality, his firm stance, on, well everything, provided an anchored couch potato of reason throughout the evening.
Elena Alexandratos nailed her role of Mrs. Bennet- the patriarch/agent, woefully pushing her daughters into any relationship which might benefit her bottom line. The basis of her narcissism was ignited, broadcasting an inevitable truth that her pit viper-like charm left much to be desired.
Ashley Bufkin seamlessly ruled the gentle optimism of Jane Bennet, a woman with ideals of love, and no reservations to bearing her soul, even through heartbreak. The self-reflective nature of her tone, coupled with the hopeless romanticism made her adorable naiveté a pleasure to consume.
Simone Recasner shined as Lizzy, the foremost champion in non-love, anti-marriage, expert in nippiness, sarcasm, and overall mirrored (and projected) angst. Her visceral philosophies only muted by her insecurities posed a perplexing and compelling argument that love always wins. A masterful performance.
Andrew William Smith brought everything, including a nasty cough, as Mary, the awkward sister who couldn’t seem to get anything right, especially her love life, wardrobe, and hair. The brightest spot on stage gleamed from a towering inferno of misplaced baritone seething.
Emma Mercier was spot on with her depiction of the annoying vibrancy and misguided energy of Lydia, the youngest and most volatile sibling. Essentially running a muck, loudly as possible, her role accurately chronicles what happens when you keep having kids.
Chris Richards, who played roles in triplicate, struck the most with Mr. Collins, the creeper family cousin with a proclivity for the attempted wooing of any member of the opposite sex with his estate, greasy-haired royal speak, and strange obsession with flora and fauna. The role provided an epic sense of awkwardness, and general feeling of…eww.
Richards also played Miss Bingley, the sister of Mr. Bingley (Andrew William Smith), an elitist socialite with an affinity for alcohol and flowing robes. Her persnickety nature fit in perfect contrast to the polarized nature of his characters’ counterparts.
As the arts scene in Pittsburgh evolves, theater companies are tasked with bringing new and exciting productions which will not only cultivate cultural buzz and ticket sales, but also introduce a new generation to theater. It’s much harder than it was 30 years ago to get people to spend money on a play, and then come back and do it again in another month.
Productions like Pride and Prejudice are well-crafted narratives that don’t bastardize the classical nature of the work, but reinvigorate it for what the world has become. I hope that Jane Austen would be pleased with the Public Theater team for pulling off a digestible play where we can laugh, understand, and take a break from the digital world. We all know when the show is over, phones will buzz, blink and vibrate, but inside the theater walls, the purity of performance is still worth the cost of admission.
Pride and Prejudice is showing through October, visit Pittsburgh Public Theater for ticket information.