Jane Austen gets a comic makeover from playwright Kate Hamill with ‘Pride and Prejudice’ at Cygnet Theatre
Welcome to Kate Hamill’s new play, “Pride and Prejudice” — only 206 years in the making!
And if its title sounds a little familiar, you should know that yes, the work is based on the beloved 1813 novel by Jane Austen.
But Hamill — a rising actor-turned-dramatist and one of the most-produced playwrights in the United States this season — is definitely not one for slavish adaptations of classics.
So expect something pretty different (and decidedly comic) when her take on Austen’s saga of romantic intrigue in Regency Era England hits Old Town’s Cygnet Theatre this week.
“I really like to approach everything as a new play,” says Hamill by phone from New York, where she’s preparing to take the stage at off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre in her own adaptation of another classic, “Little Women.”
“The thing I like about the theater is that it can be irreverent, and (gives room to) put a new spin on the classics. I really want to do progressive, feminist adaptations of the classics. And particularly with ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ which has had many, many extremely straightforward adaptations, I really wanted people to be able to come at it with a new lens.
“I’m always trying to think about how a piece is relevant now, because I don’t want the classics to be in some marble tomb. I kind of want to take them out and scribble and crayon on them — to let them run out and play in the sun, and see what they can be.”
Hamill was first moved to try her hand at playwriting about six years ago, after becoming increasingly disheartened at the dearth of good stage roles available to her and other women.
“I was finding it really, really frustrating,” Hamill says now. “I felt like all the roles I was auditioning for — not all, but a lot of them — were like cardboard cutouts of women. They weren’t vulgar or funny or interesting or flawed or unlikable. They were wives or girlfriends or prostitutes of the male protagonist or antagonist.
“That was pretty true across the board, and especially true in the classics. And they were mostly told from a male gaze.”
Hamill’s first try at addressing that issue was an adaptation of another Austen favorite, “Sense and Sensibility,” which had multiple strong off-Broadway runs.
She went on to adaptations of “Vanity Fair” and “Little Women,” which comes to San Diego’s Old Globe in 2020; she also has been writing original work, including “The Prostitute Play,” which Hamill recently workshopped at Cygnet with “Pride and Prejudice” director Rob Lutfy as part of the theater’s Finish Line commissioning program.
Hamill’s “Pride” — which the playwright says centers on the question, “How do you know you’ve made the right match in life?” — has been described as a screwball comedy, a label she deems fitting.
“The thing about romantic love and courtship is, we kind of treat it as if it’s a mix between a game and a war,” she says. “We have books called ‘The Rules’ and ‘The Game’ — it’s all very codified. And on the one hand it’s all very very serious, with high stakes, and on the other hand it’s absolutely absurd.
“I have a real weakness for farce. So I was like, what if I make a kind of feminist farce? There aren’t many of those. That will be a very different spin on ‘Pride and Prejudice’ — without putting zombies in it.” (Austen’s work inspired a rash of monster mash-ups a few years back.)
Hamill also wrote four of the characters to be gender-neutral, and — grab your smelling salts, Austen purists — bumped off at least one character.
“I’m sort of a brat — if a character doesn’t serve my purpose, I just kill them,” Hamill says with a laugh. “I keep threatening to write an adaptation where, like, a meteor comes through and kills half the characters, and everyone has to deal.
“There’s something in me that says, you think you know this story really well, but actually no rules are holding us to doing exactly what the story is. So wouldn’t it be interesting to shake some stuff up?”
“Pride and Prejudice”
When: Previews begin Wednesday. Opens Saturday. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 16.
Where: Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St., Old Town
Tickets: $25-$60 (discounts available)
Phone: (619) 337-1525
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