Review: Pride and Prejudice at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Jane Bennet (Nell Geisslinger) and Charles Bingley (Christian Barillas) are smitten with each other by the end of the first dance. Photo by David Cooper.

What do you do when life throws you a curve ball? You know the type – unexpected, hands down, brakes screeching, sort of failure/setback?

I went on a road trip.

At the last minute, I hitched a ride with two friends who had been planning this trip for months. It was great to get away, and the five hour drive to Oregon was a lovely one. I (luckily) nabbed a ticket to a sold out performance of to an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at the renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

P&P was one of the many plays that were going on at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year, which includes not only Shakespeare but a smattering of classic/contemporary plays and even new works. This year, plays included Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Twelfth Night, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and two world premieres, including of an adaptation of a Kurosawa film by Ping Chong called Throne of Blood. The statistics of this festival is impressive. Established in 1935, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs an astonishing 8 months out of the year, presenting 11 plays in three theaters, employing about 550 theater professionals. In 2009, attendance achieved 89% of capacity in all three theaters. Not bad for a small town in Oregon.

Mr. Bennet (Mark Murphey) brings news to his daughters, from left, Elizabeth (Kate Hurster), Kitty (Kimbre Lancaster), Mary (Christine Albright) and Jane (Nell Geisslinger). Photo by Jenny Graham.

The theatrical experience was a wonderful mix of a casual enthustiastic audience and a warm and stellar production. Adapted for the stage by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan and directed by Libby Appel, the production was simple yet elegant. The open set by William Bloodgood and costumes by Mara Blumenfield served many purposes with small but pointed changes. The stage reminded me of an intimate version of Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, with a stage that intrudes into the audience and multiple exits and entrances. The choreography by Art Manke cleverly used dance to transport characters in and out of society at large.

Cheeky touches brightly colored the production, such as the start of the play, where Lydia and Kitty scream at the surprise of a voice over the loudspeaker reminding the audience to put away their cell phones. The first half of the play was a bit slow, flagging in pace of a familiar story that appeared to be loved to everyone in the audience. You could practically hear everyone whispering the lines spoken simultaneously onstage. Mrs. Bennet was played by an appropriately hysterical Judith-Marie Bergan and Mark Murphey as the droll and ever-patient Mr. Bennet. The audience roared in response to Tom Collins as the unfortunately greasy-haired cousin by James Newcomb, who played it up for the audience to a silly extreme.

Mr. Darcy (Elijah Alexander) and Elizabeth Bennet (Kate Hurster) share a dance. Photo by Jenny Graham.

But in the second act, fireworks exploded on stage. The verbal banter in the up-and-down relationship between Elizabeth Bennet (a sassy and pretty Kate Hurster) and Mr. Darcy (Elijah Alexander) was crackling with tension. Mr. Darcy appeared to be slightly miscast, as he didn’t give off the air of a rich nobleman, but rather, a rogue with a rebellious streak who somehow found himself stuck in a suit. But surprisingly, his comedic timing in the second act gave Mr. Darcy an endearing quality that ended up working very well in the end. The audience was so caught up in the love story between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy that the audience literally screamed at the final kiss, and only then, did I realize how the play had gently led up to that moment. I couldn’t remember the last time an audience was so demonstrative in the middle of a show, and it was so much fun. Even I felt my cynical heart melt with tears when Mr. Bingley (Christian Barillas) proposed to Jane Bennet (Nell Geisslinger).

In all, it was a wonderful production with a stellar cast and most importantly, a singular experience of being a part of a wildly enthusiastic audience. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is definitely worth an annual road trip, as I know a lot of people do, and it’s something I’d love to do again.

Which movie/adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is your favorite? Also, we were debating what made Lizzie Bennet change her mind so drastically about Mr. Darcy. Was it because he was so rich when she saw his house in Pemberley, or was it something else?

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival website. Click here for a video preview of this production of Pride and Prejudice.

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Lunch at Brick's Smokehouse in Redding, CA with a bbq pulled pork sandwich, on the way up to Oregon. Apparently I was eating it the uncool way, with coleslaw on the side and not in the sandwich. © Saturday Matinee

Oregon beer wall

The gorgeous Lithia Park within walking distance from the theater

The view from our hotel room

Breakfast at Morning Glory in Ashland. Their muffins made from scratch were awesome, the long wait to sit down was not.

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