Arts & Culture News

At Irving Arts Center, Pride & Prejudice Struggles to Live up to Its Source Material

Irving Arts Center's Pride & Prejudice  isn't as impressive as its countless previous adaptations.
Irving Arts Center's Pride & Prejudice isn't as impressive as its countless previous adaptations. Mike Morgan

Possibly Jane Austen’s most enduring work, Pride and Prejudice is a great novel about the personal judgments that guide and interfere with the social roles of men and women in the early 1800s. It follows Lizzy Bennet, one of five sisters (many adaptations reduce the number to four) whose mother is eager to marry to wealthy men.

Lizzy is strong-minded, satisfyingly articulate and determined not to get married. The story burns slowly as she falls in love with Mr. Darcy, a man who initially seemed so rude and disdainful to her that she refused to give him the time of day. Lizzy and Darcy are both proud, and each is prejudiced against the other — the overturning of these two vices brings their story from a basic romance to a sharp commentary on human nature and society.

The novel has remained popular since its publication and has been successfully adapted many times into films and for the stage. Now through Feb. 8, Irving Arts Center is producing Kate Hamill’s adaptation, which is described as an "energetic and fast paced" update of the novel. Energetic and fast paced is quite what an adaptation like this needs. The original Pride and Prejudice is packed not only with satire and irony, but with complex characters, minute but important plot points and lots of background information. Energy is needed to convey all the necessary information without being boring; a quick pace is needed to pack the entire plot into a two-hour play.

This production does achieve this. It gets through a great deal of information, speeding through scenes while lingering on certain instances of dialogue long enough to express more pertinent subtleties, like Charlotte Lucas’ (Octavia Y. Thomas) unhappy but necessary marriage, Mrs. Bennet’s (Rhonda Rose) fear of losing her home, or Mr. Darcy’s (Hayden Gray) protection of his younger sister. These are perhaps the more serious aspects of the story — while nearly all of the characters end happily in this comedy, these details demonstrate the important struggles (especially for women) in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It can be difficult to understand the historical commentary, because the play refuses to decide upon a historical tone. It is at times decidedly Regency-era; most of the costume design and dialogue uphold the stature of the period. However, it is interlaced with playful doses of modernity. Much of the play’s comedy is derived from this, and many of the contemporary elements work quite well. For example, several characters wear tennis shoes beneath their ankle-length dresses — this is permissible because it’s practical, and shows that the play doesn’t take itself too seriously.

It can be difficult to understand the historical commentary, because the play refuses to decide upon a historical tone.

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Additionally, the ensemble cast introduces plenty of playfulness into the production. Rudy Lopez plays both the ugly Bennet sister Mary, and the charming and sweet Mr. Bingley. His rather absurd presentations of Mary as a troll-like horror and Bingley as a stupid puppy are comedic and refreshing throughout the play.

Jonathan Vineyard is perhaps the most praise-worthy member of the ensemble. He plays the obsequious Mr. Collins, the dashing and dastardly Mr. Wickham, and the haughty, beautiful Miss Bingley. Although all of these characters are fairly minor, since Vineyard plays so many of them, he is very often at the center of the stage. This is a spot he deserves. He portrays each character with appropriate humor, but also remains loyal to the important subtleties of these characters, which contribute to the political atmosphere Austen paints in the novel. Despite playing Caroline Bingley as a bald man in a frilly pink dress (a hilariously effective look), he also portrays her pride and disdain toward the lower rungs of society.

Some of the other actors fail to bring to life Austen’s beloved characters. All of Austen’s characterizations contribute to her tapestry of satire and criticism; to misrepresent a character is to unfurl Austen’s careful work. Olivia Cinquepalmi is far too energetic as both Jane, who should be sweet and meek, and Miss DeBourgh, who should be sickly, on the verge of consumption. These don’t seem to be failures on the part of the actresses, but rather on the part of the playwright or the director, Dennis Yslas. Only moderately funny, these misrepresentations primarily fuddle the characters and story.

There are other similar instances. Some of the humor is simply too anatomical for the time. Austen would never have Mrs. Bennet slap her daughter’s ass to advertise her attractiveness — this play recognizes no such bounds, and confuses its historical boundaries because of it. Then, some of the characters simply lose the wonderful wit that Austen gave them. Sadly, the most prominent examples of this are the main characters, Lizzy (played by Sara Rashelle) and Mr. Darcy.

In the novel, Lizzy is so delightful because she is witty and daring while maintaining perfect propriety. The play subdues her character a little too much; she is clever and independent, but not shocking in her intelligence or perceptiveness. Rashelle plays Lizzy as if she were a modern woman, and Lizzy’s actions aren’t shocking for a modern woman. Hence, they aren’t effective. In the second act, Lizzy takes steps toward being impressive — but she is still a little more giggly than one would hope of one of literature’s wittiest, most ironic heroines.

Nor is Darcy as sharp as he is in the novel. His and Lizzy’s interactions should inspire awe: they are supposed to be quick with one another, subtly criticizing each other and those around them without losing any sense of propriety. This script loses that clever balance. When they display manners, they don’t display wit; when they display wit, they don’t display manners. This leads to primarily boring interactions. When the two finally kiss at the end of the play, the figurative curtain falls with a dull thud rather than a bang.

It’s admittedly difficult to bring an old-fashioned story to life in a modern setting. Unable to decide between historical accuracy or contemporary comedy, this adaptation hovers in the realm of uncertainty and lack of conviction. While entertaining, it hardly leaves as lasting an impression as the work it attempts to emulate.
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