DORSET, Vt. — First, a celebrated 19th-century English novelist, who wrote anonymously in her lifetime. Next, an award-winning contemporary playwright known for her adaptations of classical works. Finally, one of the most popular stories ever written in the English language, one that has rarely been out of print since it was first published in 1813.
Mix those potent elements altogether, and you have playwright Kate Hamill's version of a Jane Austin novel for the stage. And Dorset Theatre Festival will be serving up that alluring recipe to regional audiences when it opens "Pride and Prejudice" this week, under the direction of Christopher V. Edwards.
Artistic Director Dina Janis said that Hamill has given the story a renewed edge.
"I've long admired Bedlam Theater, the company that Kate Hamill is a core member of," Janis said. "They are known for work that reinvigorates traditional material in a way that is fresh and inventive. Kate, herself, is an amazing talent, and her adaptations of Jane Austen have taken the country by storm, playing to sell-out houses and extended runs wherever they're produced. 'Pride and Prejudice,' in particular, is a favorite for so many."
That favorite comedy of manners from the British Regency period involving Lizzy and Darcy has endured. In Hamill's adaptation, the outspoken Elizabeth Bennet faces mounting pressure from all sides to secure a suitable marriage.
But is marriage suitable for a woman of Elizabeth's intelligence and independence? When she meets the stand-offish, tall, vaguely handsome, mildly amusing and impossibly aristocratic Mr. Darcy, they clash initially, but is there something deeper behind their animosity?
The play is presented in collaboration with Actors' Shakespeare Project, where director Edwards, who has recently appeared on Dorset's stage as Dr. Watson, the beloved Sherlock Holmes sidekick, is also artistic director. Edwards will take the play to ASP in June 2019.
Edwards said the production will bring the social commentary of the early 1800s into the present, "all the while poking fun at the foibles of looking for and finding love."
"Kate Hamill's adaptation of 'Pride and Prejudice' is irreverent, funny and moving," Edwards said recently in a break from rehearsals. "It's a story of a young woman who speaks her mind, is awkwardly self-aware, who challenges the social limitations for women in the 1800s — limitations that even now in 2018, we are still struggling to overcome."
All and all, Edwards continued, the story will be "a joyous romp for actors and audience members alike" and a play that is "just as fun to create in the rehearsal room as seeing the finished product the stage."
In that rehearsal room, in a turn from the small, more compact casts of this year's productions, Dorset will feature a robust group of eight actors, many of them hopping from role to role as the story dictates.
This includes Krystel Lucas, ("The Blacklist," "Jessica Jones") as Jane and Miss DeBourgh; Jessica Frey ("Sense and Sensibility" at Bedlam ) as Lizzy; Aishling Pembroke as Lydia and Lady Catherine; Dave Quay ("The Low Road" at The Public Theater) as Mr. Darcy; Ryan Quinn ("Whorl Inside a Loop" at Second Stage) as Mr. Collins, Mr. Wickham, and Miss Bingley; Carman Lacivita ("Marvin's Room" on Broadway) as Mr. Bingley and Mary; Omar Robinson ("Hamlet" at Actors' Shakespeare Project) as Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Bennet; and Joan Coombs ("Tartuffe" at Shakespeare and Company) as Mrs. Bennet.
"It's fabulous to bring in a show with a large cast, all of whom play multiple roles, making the cast even larger, if you will," Janis said. "Watching terrific actors switch from role to role is so much fun and a celebration of the art of acting — in this case, comedic acting."
Janis quickly added that audiences will be "pleasantly surprised by the meshing together between old and new forms."
She said the adaptation and direction in general remain loyal to the heart of Austen's period and intent, while at the same time "playing with style and form in ways that are, simply put, quite magical and absolutely hilarious."
"Audiences of all ages are going to love this show, including the younger crowd," Janis said. "We're looking forward to seeing families coming in together to experience our fresh take on this classic."