“Pride and Prejudice” at Cedarville University
A large cast, an elegant set that seems spare and static, and a plot complicated by antique manners need a director who can keep it all flowing. Diane Conrad Merchant has met the challenge, cleverly incorporating the actors, set and changing scenes almost as if it were choreographed.
Austen gives us the story of the Bennet family with five marriageable daughters busily involved in the requisite activities of Regency-era society, but lacking the adequate social and financial status to be easily accepted. The parents – especially the mother – are desperate to see the girls well married, and parade them before eligible men of a so-called higher class in a series of cotillions and house parties. Most of the unmarried men – especially Mr. Darcy – have a prejudice, or at least an attitude of superiority Elizabeth Bennet, the second sister, finds supremely irritating. It doesn’t occur to the outspoken girl her viewpoint is equally prejudiced.
Austen was a groundbreaker, bringing a certain reality and display of actual emotion to conventional social action. It might be considered an early 19th century stylized soap opera with a happy ending. The intricacies of the relationships could be difficult for modern audiences to follow, were it not for a very well written explanation called “Audience Resource Guide,” provided to the audience and written by student Doug Malcolm, the dramaturg who has done his research diligently.
The dynamic quality of the production rests essentially on the playwright and the creativity of the designer and director. The set becomes almost a living character. Large windows and other elements descend silently from the flies, changing the scene in an instant, avoiding the kinds of delays that can break a play’s momentum, as well as the audience’s concentration. The set – ingenious, functional and beautiful – was designed by faculty member Robert Clement. It took a set construction crew of a dozen or so to make it happen. Clements was also the lighting designer and properties master.
It is the props – including the furniture, moved on and off stage by the actors – that adds to the sense of movement and energy, allowing the audience to follow the different scenes without needing a blackout pause and scurrying crew. Director Merchant mused on how challenging it has been to block this play, getting an actor carrying a chair, for instance, to exit and avoid collision with another actor ready to enter. “Backstage rolled like a machine,” she said.
An imaginative bit got a delayed audience realization – Elizabeth and Aunt Gardiner, sitting on a box behind Uncle Gardiner with his arms extended forward implied a moving carriage. It was a delightful moment.
Several reels and contras with appropriate music in the first act are true to the era. Choreographer Rebecca Scarpone has taught the patterns well and the actors move properly. Each dance is shortened, indicating but not belaboring the party atmosphere.
Jory is true to the original language and Merchant has directed her cast in acquiring the educated English accent. They worked with Associate Professor of Theatre and dialect coach Rebecca Baker to maintain consistency.
Unfortunately, some of the lines are delivered in high-pitched, excitable rushes and are difficult to follow. The director has done a good job of increasing clarity, staging much of the actors’ dialogue delivered to the audience, rather than facing each other. However, one student in the audience was overheard to say, “They talk fast and they talk weird” (weird not defined).
Elizabeth Bennet, played by Madison Hart, and Mr. Darcy, David Widder-Varheygi, handle their challenges well. In a brief interview, Widder-Varheygi said he focused on remaining in character, even when backstage. Because no audience is allowed at rehearsals (publisher’s contract) the sound of laughter was a surprise. By their third performance the cast was doing well, “holding for laughs.”
As Mr. Bennet, Ben Lenox’s diction was good; Roger Gelwicks as Mr. Collins got the most from his comedic role. Sarah Largent as Miss Bingley and doubling as Mrs. Gardiner overcame a recent flu hospitalization to prove the show must go on. The other Bennet daughters were Charissa Curby as the poised Jane; Rebecca Levergood as the bookish Mary; Gisela Mulligan as the fun-loving Kitty and Alana Perry as the easily beguiled 15-year-old Lydia. The entire large cast functioned smoothly as an ensemble, an impressive accomplishment.
Jon Jory has a long, distinguished career in the theatre, including heading the Actors Theatre of Louisville and the creation of their Humana Festival of New American Plays. He has adapted three other Austen books for the stage, as well as directing some 125 plays in the last 31 years and earning numerous production credits.
Undertaking this complicated classic and transforming it in minimalist and abstract style successfully is an accomplishment for which the entire Cedarville Theatre Department may be justly proud.
“Pride and Prejudice” runs Feb. 8, 9 and 10 at the Stevens Student Center, located on the Cedarville University campus, 251 N. Main St in Cedarville. For tickets or more information, please call 937.766.3437 or visit cedarville.edu/theatre.
Reach DCP freelance writer Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.