Kate Hamill’s adaptation of beloved 1800s novel bursts with laughs and surprises but is not one for the purists
Longbourn, Netherfield Park, Rosings, Pemberley — the mere act of reading those dignified place names in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” can polish your etiquette and prop up your posture.
But in Kate Hamill’s new stage adaptation of the classic novel, the action unfolds in another estate of mind entirely. Little place called Bonkers.
And as demonstrated in Cygnet Theatre’s San Diego premiere of this gleefully comic piece, it’s a place where Austen’s people are free to get very weird.
So here’s the saga’s matriarch, Mrs. Bennett (an uproariously unhinged Shana Wride), leading her daughters in a cheerleading routine that features the peppy refrain, “No one wants to die alone!”
And here’s the middle daughter Mary (reliably hilarious Kevin Hafso-Koppman), materializing in the audience to yap like a dog.
And here’s Mary again (because in this show, there’s always the loose cannon Mary), plinking a version of the 1980s pop hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on the family piano during a dire discussion between her sister Elizabeth (Jacque Wilke, wry and understated) and would-be beau Mr. Darcy (a quietly smoldering Steven Lone).
Which totally makes sense because Austen herself invokes the phrase “bright eyes,” and so does the song. Or something.
At some point in the show’s first act, you might start to wonder — as I’ll admit I did — if Hamill’s take on the 1813 story is meant as pure spoof. But as things develop, the playwright salts in just enough sincerity and (brace yourself) seriousness to make clear there’s more going on here than an extended Austen-based comedy sketch.
I’m still not totally convinced her approach illuminates “Pride” and its considerable themes (the depredations of female disempowerment, the meaning of romantic love) in any really new way. But I will say I laughed a whole lot. And am still laughing, actually, at the vision of the stalwart Mr. Wickham (Jake Millgard, in sublime comic form) suddenly noticing his missing ponytail is clenched in the teeth of the feral Mary.
If you’ll remember, this story by the author of “Sense and Sensibility” — and by the way, those last seven words are actually plastered on a billboard above Sean Fanning’s playful, very meta-theatrical set — centers mostly on the fraught bond between Elizabeth and Darcy.
Their story plays out against the backdrop of the Bennetts’ urgency to marry off at least one daughter to a well-off gent, lest all wind up in poverty after the passing of Mr. Bennett (Adrian Alita, who’s by turns withering and pithy), since the estate can only be passed along to a male heir.
Oldest daughter Jane (Joy Yvonne Jones, radiant and subtly funny despite a somewhat one-dimensional role) takes a shine to the sprightly Mr. Bingley (Hafso-Koppman again), Darcy’s friend. Extravagantly excitable Lydia (a perfectly off-kilter Michelle Marie Trester), the youngest, eventually finds a scandalous match of her own. But Lizzy and the ever-aloof Darcy just keep messing with each other’s heads.
As for Mary: There doesn’t seem to be a mate in sight for this conspicuously consumptive oddball, but the absolutely unstoppable Hafso-Koppman is everywhere in the show, and kind of everything to it — although he’s just part of a strong cast all around in director Rob Lutfy’s high-wire act of a show.
In keeping with our own era’s evolving ideas about gender identity, Hamill wrote several roles to be gender-neutral, and all the men in the cast save Lone play women at some point. (The doubling and tripling of actors also subtly reinforces the story’s ideas about people not always being who they seem.)
Because the character of Mary here is so over the top, it can be tricky to discern whether part of the comedy also derives from seeing a guy in a dress. While it’s not remotely Hafso-Koppman’s doing, that does raise the question of whether this cuts against contemporary sensitivities regarding “drag” humor and the embracing of different modes of gender expression (particularly as Mary becomes the butt of jokes over her attractiveness, or lack thereof).
Still, that’s probably overthinking a show that at one point has Bingley giving Jane a “Dirty Dancing"-style lift to the strains of a Cyndia Lauper tune.
Time after time, Hamill’s “Pride” joyride has a way of making you smile.
“Pride and Prejudice”
When: 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