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‘Pride and Prejudice’ at American Players: Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, with charm and brevity

Submitted by on Aug 19, 2015 – 12:10 am

Mr. Darcy (Marcus Truschinski) makes a stiff effort at dancing with Elizabeth Bennet (Kelsey Brennan). (Zane Williams)Review: “Pride and Prejudice,” adapted by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan from the novel by Jane Austen, at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis., through Sept. 26. ★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

SPRING GREEN, Wis. – You can’t blame an audience for lapping it up: Skilled and familiar actors playing beloved characters in a story so cherished that everyone can pretty much recite along. But that doesn’t necessarily make for memorable theater. Witness the American Players Theatre stage version of Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice.”

Sisters Jane (Laura Rook) and Elizabeth Bennet (Kelsey Brennan) share a confidential moment. (Zane Williams)What this adaptation by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan amounts to is a concise sketch of a book that is artfully constructed, generously elaborated and elegantly nuanced.

We go in knowing everything about lovely, smart, strong-minded Elizabeth Bennet (played by Kelsey Brennan), her droll father (James Ridge), her fluttering mother (Sarah Day), the aloof Mr. Darcy (Marcus Truschinski), the insipid pastor Mr. Collins (Chris Klopatek), the dastardly Mr. Wickham (Jeb Burris), the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Tracy Michelle Arnold), et al.

I suspect that a mute walk-through of the storyline by these familial characters would leave not a single observer at a loss to know what was going on. But held to the common requirements of dramatic explication and character development, this cooked down serving of Austen’s tale looks thin.

Mr. Bennet (James Ridge) has his eye on the well-being of daughter Lizzy (Kelsey Brennan). (Zane Williams)Ultimately, APT’s “Pride and Prejudice” suggests a pleasant dance, the brief encounter of a charming community. American Players is a terrific ensemble company and director Tyne Rafaeli has a masterly cast at her disposal. Brennan’s spunky Elizabeth and Truschinski’s tall, dark and reticent Darcy make a splendid match. There’s an irrepressible energy, along with a well-calculated excess of self-assurance (read: prejudice), in Brennan’s Lizzy. Her belated reappraisal of Mr. Darcy is indeed convincing.

Yet the best scenes involving Lizzy are not with Darcy but rather with Klopatek’s deliciously irritating Mr. Collins, when he offers her the favor of his hand in marriage and she turns him down flat, and Arnold’s cosmically presumptuous Lady Catherine, who demands that Lizzy refuse any offer from Mr. Darcy — only to be rebuffed with the same clarity that disabused the feckless preacher. One can almost hear the audience silently chorusing one’s own delight: “You go, girl!”

Ridge’s quietly wise Mr. Bennet also affords a pointed foil to Day’s anxiety-ridden Mrs. Bennet, who is rightly concerned about marrying off her five daughters lest any of them — or she herself — suffer the dispossession threatened by 19th-century British inheritance law that acknowledged only male heirs. Day’s mercurial wife and mother, her hopes and mental condition rising and falling in direct relation to the turning of events, nearly steals the evening.

Mr. Bingley (Nate Burger) makes his intentions known to Jane Bennet (Laura Rook). (Zane Williams)Still, the brevity necessitated by ordinary play length takes its toll. The relationship between Lizzy’s sister Jane (Laura Rook) and Mr. Darcy’s good – and wealthy – friend Mr. Bingley (Nate Burger) feels a bit squeezed, even expedited. And while Burris’ Wickham has the makings of a proper scoundrel, we don’t see quite enough of him – or his time with the impetuous Lydia Bennet (Melisa Pereyraz) – to judge him by more than second-hand accounts, even if the most damning testimony comes from the unimpeachable Darcy.

These adroitly stitched up highlights from “Pride and Prejudice” come beautifully costumed by Susan E. Mickey and spaciously set by designer Nayna Ramey. Rafaeli’s stage direction might be more aptly called choreography as she maneuvers characters in and out of scenes with efficient purpose. Time really is of the essence. But it wasn’t for Jane Austen, and the difference tells.

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