Pride and Prejudice — Image via guthrietheater.org

Pride and Prejudice

Guthrie Theater
Directed by Joe Dowling

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of the most beloved novels in the English language for many good reasons. Of course, the lively wit and intellect of Austen’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, stand out, but more broadly, the book is rich with representations of social types and narrative threads that are, at the same time, universally recognizable and uniquely situated in the elaborate class structure and gender politics of a specific place and time. It is also a long and complex novel, and any attempt to turn it into two hours of theater will inevitably end up sacrificing treasured elements of the story. Which elements are cut is a matter of priorities.

In the Guthrie Theater’s current production of Pride and Prejudice, adapted by Simon Reade and directed by Joe Dowling, it appears that the priority is making the audience laugh. That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing; Austen’s book is, among other things, very funny. And as anyone who has been to more than a couple plays at the Guthrie knows, their audience loves a good laugh. But in prioritizing humor (and, specifically, easy laughs where there is no danger of anyone missing the joke), the Guthrie’s production strips the story of much of its subtlety, tension and narrative interest.

Pride and Prejudice — Image via guthrietheater.orgOne difficulty with this approach is that, in the book, Elizabeth’s sometime adversary and eventual love interest, Mr. Darcy, is rarely either intentionally or unintentionally hilarious. In the Guthrie’s rendition, this leaves him with relatively little to do, except what is strictly necessary to move the plot forward. As portrayed by Vincent Kartheiser, Darcy is neither as much of a snob at the beginning of the story nor as much of a generous and pleasant person at the end of the story as he is in the novel. Nor does he evolve from looking down on Elizabeth’s family because her uncle is a merchant to welcoming that uncle, Mr. Gardiner, and his wife into the center of his social circle. (Generally, in the Guthrie’s production, the complexities of class in early industrial England are reduced to a contrast between the rich, who wear fancy costumes and prefer formal dancing, and the not so rich, who dress more casually and prefer folk dancing.) At the end of the day, Darcy simply comes across as an awkward person who eventually overcomes his awkwardness for long enough to propose marriage to Elizabeth without making a complete ass of himself.

Another unfortunate aspect of the Guthrie’s production is its treatment of Elizabeth’s mother and several of her sisters. According to the Guthrie’s publicity materials, Dowling wanted to “not just explore the humor of [the novel], not just explore the grandeur of the story, but also give it that undercurrent, so that our audience will get an opportunity to understand who these people are, where they come from, and why it is so important that all five daughters end up with proper marriages.” Yet in his production, Mrs. Bennet (Suzanne Warmanen) — the character who most often gives voice to the latter concern — is portrayed as an extreme caricature, saying only the most ridiculous things and often screaming them at the top of her lungs. Meanwhile, the pedantic Mary (Thallis Santesteban) speaks like a robot and puts a stop to all conversation every time she utters a word, and the licentious Lydia (Aeysha Kinnunen) behaves like she is drunk most of the time. Perhaps Reade or Dowling decided that the audience could not be trusted to pick up on these characters’ personal qualities without a great deal of prompting, but as a result, it is virtually impossible to sympathize with, understand or care about them.

Pride and Prejudice — Image via guthrietheater.orgThankfully, not all of the characters are portrayed in this fashion. As Elizabeth, Ashley Rose Montondo generally does an excellent job of bringing Austen’s prose to life. Her behavior is perhaps a bit brasher than one would expect, but not so much so that it harms her credibility as a character. Mr. Bennet could easily become just another source of one-liners, but Peter Thomson allows him to be more than that, expressing the warmth behind his sarcasm. Anna Sundberg is appropriately snobby as Miss Bingley, without taking things over the top; Sally Wingert is delightfully rude and arrogant as Lady Catherine de Bourgh (though she is given little to do as a prematurely aged Mrs. Gardiner); and Kris L. Nelson utters Mr. Collins’s ridiculous lines as if he is perfectly serious, making them all the more hilarious.

Ultimately, Reade and the Guthrie’s take on Pride and Prejudice appears to be characterized by a desire to separate out the humor from the “heavy stuff” — the characters’ efforts to find personal happiness within a rigid and unforgiving social context. The trouble is that, in the novel, the humor often arises from and is inextricably linked to the “heavy stuff.” Some characters may survive better than others, but in the long run, the story is not nearly as compelling (and the funny parts are not nearly as funny) without the full benefit of Austen’s keen sense of social observation.

Photos by Michael Brosilow

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.