In “Pride and Prejudice,” young Elizabeth Bennet fights 19th-century strictures about love and marriage, while Kate Hamill’s comic adaptation of the 1813 romantic novel pushes those rules and just about everything else nearly over the edge.
“What I like about Kate Hamill and her adaptations is she celebrates the art of theater while she celebrates the art of Jane Austen,” explains Kathleen Keenan, Lost Nation Theater’s producing artistic director, who is directing the Montpelier professional company’s production.
“The artifice of the aristocracy matches the art of theater and puts them together — and explodes it all,” she said recently between rehearsals. “In that explosion we can highlight the absurdities of what’s happening — the absurdities of the strictures that women, and men, were forced into.”
Lost Nation Theater will present “Pride and Prejudice,” in Hamill’s adaptation, Oct. 3-20 at Montpelier City Hall Arts Center.
Hamill’s adaptation premiered at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in 2017. The production, in which Hamill and her long-term partner Jason O’Connell played the leading roles of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, transferred to Manhattan’s Primary Stages in 2018.
In the Austen original, Elizabeth, or Lizzy, is one of five daughters of an impecunious aristocratic family destined for poverty if one of them cannot make an advantageous marriage. Despite intense pressure from her neurotic mother, Lizzy rebels against pursuing the wealthy and single Mr. Darcy.
Austen’s opening line says it all: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
“One of the things I enjoy about Kate Hamill’s adaptation is that she brings it to the modern world,” Keenan said. “A lot of people think of Jane Austen as very serious, but ‘Pride and Prejudice has a lot of humor in it. It’s very funny.”
Austen’s humor lies in her honest depiction of manners, education, marriage and money of the period that comes across as satirical, particularly today. Hamill, who also adapted “Sense and Sensibility” and “Little Women,” takes the humor a step further — in fact, many steps.
In Hamill’s version, the plot more or less survives, but she has great fun with the characters and the now quaint mores. Contributing to the farce, eight actors play multiple characters with genders bending throughout. Only Lizzy and Mr. Darcy remain intact.
“Some of my favorite things celebrate the art and craft of theater, and not hide anything and show it all. It does have all the elements — it’s like the kitchen sink all thrown in there. I think it’s all there,” Keenan said. “The broadness of the comedy in many ways helps shine a light on those more poignant moments.”
The difficulty in all this work is that there are essentially two shows going on simultaneously.
“One is that jigsaw puzzle of that farcical moving in and out, and it’s very challenging because it is very cinematic in the way that it’s written, so there’s not any space for the practicalities of moving from one scene to another. Things melt and it’s very fluid,” Keenan said. “Amongst all of that with stage fight, dancing, and all of that, we have to take (Austen’s) journey.”
For that, Keenan looks to the cast.
“Half the actors have been with us before and half the people are brand new,” she said. “I think we’ve got incredibly empathetic, skilled and versatile folks working on the show who will pull you in and make you want to root for them.”
What Keenan loves most about this type of theater is that it, like musicals, takes a poignant story and surrounds it with comedy that underscores its message.
“Everybody needs to take that journey. Nobody can be the same at the end as they were in the beginning,” Keenan said. “And I think Kate Hamill does that very successfully.”