It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single theater company producing a Jane Austen play, must be in want of good psychological care, lest it risk offending the finely tuned sensibilities of Jane Austen fans.
So, what’s to be said about our fair city that not one—but two—companies are offering up takes on that much-beloved and revered Austen classic, Pride and Prejudice? Answer: We’re a city that likes wit and loves people who take chances.
Main Street Theater had a hit on its hands last year with Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s Miss Bennet – Christmas at Pemberley—a clever, witty “sequel” to Pride and Prejudice. In fact, it played so well that the decision to revive it this year was made in the middle of last year’s run.
And when 4th Wall Theatre Company’s co-artistic director Kim Tobin-Lehl saw Kate Hamill’s Sense and Sensibility at New York’s Bedlam Theatre, she fell in love with Hamill’s take on the material, and pounced on the chance to bring her Pride and Prejudice to Houston.
The upside for Houston audiences is an opportunity to see these two pieces side-by-side and delight in cheeky wit and wisdom about life and love and family. Both shows take Austen’s foundation and build on it, although neither one exists as a word-for-word adaptation.
Pride and Prejudice is an unconventional, breezy, almost vaudevillian take on the romance between the smart and headstrong Elizabeth and the aloof Fitzwilliam Darcy. Meanwhile, Miss Bennet offers a glimpse into life two years after Lizzie has married Darcy. The story concentrates on middle sister Mary, who’s bookish and nerdy and wondering if all that’s left in her life is her library and her music and caring for her parents—and thinking, just perhaps, she wants something more.
“What I love about Kate’s version of the story is that she keeps the idea that Pride and Prejudice is really a feminist piece for that era,” says Tobin-Lehl, who’s directing the show at 4th Wall. “But she infuses it with devices and all this humor that points to how silly and how ridiculously we all deal with each other sometimes. It was true then, and it’s true in our modern world.”
Tobin-Lehl calls the show “very big,” with eight actors playing multiple parts. She was attracted to the piece for its quick pace, humor, and heart.
For Claire Hart-Palumbo, director of Miss Bennet, the charm of her show is what it doesn’t do.
“[Lauren Gunderson] didn’t try to mess with Jane Austen,” she says. “She took the characters and extended their stories. And I really love that she focused on a character that had been given short shrift in the book. Miss Bennet is about this shy and retiring character who is often the butt of jokes and what happened with her life. She’s such a foil for the other characters and the fact that she gets her own story now—and it’s a love story—is exciting.”
Both directors believe that Jane Austen offered a keen perspective on life in the early 19th century. The reason Austen has dazzled fans for centuries is as much about her lush, barb-laced writing as it is for the fact that she celebrates the everyday-ness of living life, falling in love, and finding where you belong.
"Austen gives us a snapshot to the way people react to each other,” says Hart-Palumbo. “And in a character like Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice, she gives us someone who misinterprets people, who makes mistakes—and she still gets a second chance. I think people see themselves in that.”
Miss Bennet is traditionally staged in a parlor at Pemberley with a lovely set that evokes a grand manor house. Pride and Prejudice is more of a moving target, with small props coming in and out to convey time and place. Miss Bennet is a drawing room comedy of manners; its counterpart from 4th Wall a bit more adventurous. But both shows should provide amusements aplenty for lovers of Austen and good theater alike.
Most of all, both directors are confident that audiences will warm to the idea of seeing this beloved story told from these two perspectives, whether they start with Pride and Prejudice and see its sequel, or begin with Miss Bennet and go “backwards” to the original story.
“What a fun holiday treat to be able to go to one and then the other,” says Tobin-Lehl.
Miss Bennet – Christmas at Pemberley, Nov. 23–Dec. 23. Tickets from $39. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-6706. More info and tickets at mainstreettheater.com.
Pride and Prejudice, Nov. 29–Dec. 22. Tickets from $17. 4th Wall Theatre, 1824 Spring St. 832-786-1849. More info and tickets at 4thwalltheatreco.com.