Ms. Dehnert’s excitable production, which premiered last summer at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, announces this theme in a curtain raiser as the eight-member cast clusters in the middle of the stage and sings “The Game of Love,” a 1965 chart-topper that makes you retroactively ashamed of youth culture: “Love your daddy with all your might”? Ugh.
In the first scene, Lizzy (Ms. Hamill) compares the pursuit of a husband to a hand of whist or a round of charades. “There are rules, strategies, wins, losses,” she says, “and it is, theoretically, done for pleasure.” But Lizzy doesn’t want to play. Wounded by her parents’ evident mismatch, she has become a matrimony truther. She tells her sisters that she’ll never marry. “The state is fundamentally flawed,” she says.
There’s fun to be had in understanding the story this way and seeing how the characters compete for husbands when provided with woefully incomplete information sets. (The epistemological problem of Georgian England: You can’t stalk prospective partners on social media.) Liveliness extends to the direction, too, which is as frisky as a terrier at a squirrel preserve.
Actors are always on the move, ringing bells, donning cravats, doubling roles. If the performances are sometimes too exaggerated, they are always spirited, particularly John Tufts as a proto-Goth sister and a dippy suitor. Jason O’Connell’s haughty, awkward Mr. Darcy is even better than that. Mr. O’Connell, Ms. Hamill’s real-life partner, makes Mr. Darcy’s slow unfolding the emotional center of the play. Ms. Hamill, on the other hand, constrains her natural exuberance. Sometimes her Lizzy is impish, sometimes noisily sour. Life has handed her lemons. She has made lemon juice.
Now here’s where I out myself as a stealth purist and reach for the smelling salts. I don’t mind the anachronisms in language or music and I’ll go to the mat for Ms. Hamill’s un-Georgian mischief. And yet, unlike Ms. Hamill’s passionate “Sense and Sensibility,” this “Pride and Prejudice” misses the heart and real radicalism of its source. Maybe it even misses the point.
There’s nothing wrong with making “Pride and Prejudice” funny. Austen knew it was funny. As she complained to a friend, “The work is rather too light & bright & sparkling.” This doesn’t mean it wasn’t also serious and searching. In Austen’s novel, Lizzy doesn’t reject marriage out of hand. Rather, she values her own happiness so much that she won’t tie herself to someone who endangers it, even if he can save her family from penury.
When she rejects the proposal of her revolting cousin Mr. Collins, she says, in lines Ms. Hamill doesn’t borrow or paraphrase, “You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who could make you so.”
A woman elevating her own life, liberty and pursuit of happiness above the wishes of her family and the men who desire her? That’s not simple or cynical. In 1813, it is a revolutionary choice. I’d argue it’s still revolutionary. Forget game theory: Austen’s Lizzy is a daintified mixed martial arts fighter, battling to preserve her sense of self.
Of course, Lizzy has to learn that she doesn’t know herself nearly as well as she believed and that the man who seemingly threatened her happiness is actually just who she needs to sustain it. (That he has all that parkland probably doesn’t hurt.) This is true of the play and the novel both.
So hurrah. Love wins. But in this “Pride and Prejudice,” it’s a narrow victory.