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First Impressions
Adapted from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
Conceived by Rachel Tibbetts and Ellie Schwetye
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
SATE Ensemble Theatre
May 17, 2017

John Wolbers, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

 I’m a Jane Austen fan. I’ve read her books, seen various filmed adaptations, and like a lot of Austen fans, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite of her novels. Also like a lot of Austen fans, I have a lot of strong opinions about the story and its adaptations. Austen seems to inspire a lot of strong emotions about her works, and that trait is represented well in SATE Ensemble Theatre’s latest production, First Impressions, which tells the story of Pride and Prejudice in a dynamic way while also telling the stories of many of its readers.

The basic story of Pride and Prejudice is well-known by many, whether they’ve read the book or seen many of the various filmed and staged adaptations. Here, with First Impressions, adapters Rachel Tibbetts and Ellie Schwetye have given the story the SATE treatment, presenting the story in a somewhat straightforward way in one sense, but opening it up in another sense, in terms of framing, staging, and casting. Here, various testimonials of of people’s “first impressions” of the story are interspersed with the story. All the familiar characters are here, as Elizabeth Bennet (Schwetye) meets Mr. Darcy (John Wolbers) and the romantic and family drama and comedy unfolds. Elizabeth and her sisters Jane (Cara Barresi), Mary (Parvuna Sulamain), Kitty (Jazmine K. Wade), and Lydia (Katy Keating) live with their parents, the marriage-obsessed Mrs. Bennet (Nicole Angeli) and the somewhat world-weary Mr. Bennet (Carl Overly, Jr.). When the handsome, eligible Mr. Bingley (Michael Cassidy Flynn) moves into a nearby estate, the story is in motion, following Elizabeth as she learns more about the mysterious Mr. Darcy and about the world around her, populated by characters like the sycophantic Mr. Collins (Andrew Kuhlmann), the dashing but caddish Mr. Wickham (also Flynn), and the imperious Lady Catherine DeBourgh (also Angeli).  The story is narrated by Mary, and as the action unfolds, it’s often interspersed with the “first impression” stories that provide commentary not just on the story itself, but on its place in history, its appeal to people from all ages and cultural backgrounds, and also occasional critique of Austen’s perspective and her era.

It’s a fast-paced, fascinating, riveting presentation, full of motion and emotion, with characterizations that are at once true to the spirit of the book and strikingly modern. The fact that some performers play more than one role also provides interest in the form of contrast, such as Angeli’s portrayal of the meddling Mrs. Bennet, the imposing Lady Catherine DeBourgh, and the personable Aunt Gardiner. Angeli is particularly notable for portraying a Mrs. Bennet who doesn’t come across as a caricature or a cartoon as she can in some filmed adaptations. Yes, she can be silly, but Angeli provides some substance behind the silliness, and there’s a degree of affection between Angeli and Overly’s Mr. Bennet that adds a level of depth to their relationship. Sulamain’s portrayal of Mary is similarly refreshing, making the middle Bennet sister appear more thoughtful than sanctimonious. The other Bennet sisters are also strong in their characterization, from Barresi’s reserved but gentle Jane, to Wade’s excitable Kitty, to Keating’s brash, outspoken Lydia.  Flynn is excellent as both the generous, lovestruck Bingley and the charismatic but unprincipled Wickham. Kristen Strom gives another strong contrasting performance as two distinctly different sisters–the haughty Caroline Bingley, and the more humble, kindly Georgiana Darcy. Rachel Hanks is memorable as a particularly enthusiastic incarnation of Mr. Darcy’s housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, and also as Elizabeth’s practically-minded best friend, Charlotte Lucas, who ends up marrying the Bennets’ silly cousin, Mr. Collins, who is portrayed with a gleeful, almost morbid intensity by Andrew Kuhlman. And last but not least are Schwetye in an engaging, determined portrayal of Elizabeth and Wolbers as Mr. Darcy, giving him a more reserved and occasionally witty portrayal. The chemistry between Schwetye and Wolbers is strong, as is the chemistry among the sisters, and the staging lends to the characterization, and the sisters are often seen gathering to eavesdrop on their sisters’ conversations.

It’s a fresh, timely staging that brings out a lot of the story’s humor as well as examining its seemingly universal appeal. The set and lighting by Bess Moynihan contribute a great deal to the tone of the show. The big white tent and and minimal furnishings add to the always-in-motion quality of the play, and Elizabeth Henning’s costumes are especially impressive, featuring a blend of period details and modern flair, from Wickham’s leather jacket and pants to the colorful dresses of the Bennet sisters, and more, this is a production that celebrates the classic elements and the timeless quality of this show. There’s excellent sound design by Schwetye as well, and the use of music–mostly modern pop music rearranged as chamber music–works extremely well, especially in the wonderful Netherfield Ball sequence.

This is a fun show as well as a thought-provoking one. References to Colin Firth and Laurence Olivier are thrown in along with comments on women’s roles, the affluence of the characters, and more. A frequent theme that comes up in the testimonials is how the story can mean different things to the same person depending on when they read it.  Pride and Prejudice is a story that means a lot to many people, and although opinions can greatly vary, it’s a story that’s clearly made an impact over the generations. SATE Ensemble Theatre has presented this story well, as well as examining it, somewhat deconstructing it, challenging it, and celebrating it. Like so many of the shows SATE does, this show takes a unique approach, and it provides for a singular theatrical experience.

John Wolbers, Katy Keating, Nicole Angeli, Andrew Kuhlman, Jazmine K. Wade, Parvuna Sulaiman, Carl Overly, Jr.
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting First Impressions at the Chapel until May 27, 2017

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Sense and Sensibility

Adapted and Directed by Jon Jory

Based on the Novel by Jane Austen

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

February 13, 2013

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I love Jane Austen.  I went through something of an “Austen geek” phase when I was younger.  Oh, who am I kidding? I’m still an Austen geek!  I’ve read most of her books—a few several times—and any time there is a new TV or film adaptation I am eager to see it (on a side note, anyone who loves Austen and hasn’t checked out the excellent web series “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” needs to do so, now).  OK, digression over.  This is about Sense and Sensibility at the Rep, which was just the right show to see the day before Valentine’s Day, as it is an excellent celebration of love in several forms, from familial to romantic, and as usual, the Rep does it right.

This production was fast-paced and thoroughly engaging.  The story of the Dashwood sisters—dependable, even-keeled Elinor (Nancy Lemenger) and impulsive, intensely emotional Marianne (Amelia McLain) is very well presented, focusing on the sisters’ relationships with one another and with their mother (Penny Slusher) at least as much, if not more so, than the relationships of the women with their suitors.  A common myth about Austen is that her novels are all about lonely women who want to get married, but they are about much more than that.  The relationships among the women are just as important as the marriages, and often more so.  Because of the social restrictions of Austen’s day, single women often spent their days solely in the company of sisters and family, and when they did mingle with the rest of society, strict rules of propriety governed their actions.  These strict rules are challenged by the romantic Marianne, who ignores the advances of the honorable but socially awkward Colonel Brandon (Alex Podulke) to pursue the impetuous Willoughby (Charles Andrew Callaghan), who has his own social obligations to meet unbeknownst to Marianne.  Meanwhile, older sister Elinor is attracted to her sister-in-law’s brother, the shy Edward Ferrars (Geoff Rice), not knowing the secret that he has hidden which threatens to derail their relationship before it really has a chance to begin.

This is more than a romance.  Often Austen’s novels are dismissed as mere romance stories when there is much more to them than that.  There is cultural satire, wit and drama, and all are represented well in this production, with all the manipulative and domineering relatives and scheming social climbers, and struggles to live up to–or rise above–society’s expectations for women and men at the time. The adaptation is fast-paced and very funny at times, with some of the inherent difficulties in adapting a novel to the stage dealt with in fun ways, such as what to do with the third Dashwood sister, Margaret, who isn’t mentioned in the novel very often so here, rather than being cut out entirely she has become and offstage character who is talked about but never seen.  This may seem odd to read about, but on stage it works, and the running jokes about what Margaret is up to now provide some nice comic moments.  Also, since there is so much story to get through in the time allotted, many of the scenes are very short but the pacing doesn’t feel overly rushed.  The striking, minimalist set, centering around a large doorway, with movable furniture that is place in a track-like arrangement, lends to the pacing and allows for characters to go for strolls in the country, brisk walks around the room, or elegant dances as the plot requires, all the while moving the action forward and keeping the audience’s interest.

While this show is more than romance, the romance is definitely there and it’s lovely.  The chemistry among the actors is wonderful.  The suitors are well played by Callaghan (suitably charming and smarmy), Podulke (with a delightful nervous energy) and Rice (kind and sweet) and they work well with their romantic partners (Callaghan and Podulke with McLain, and Rice with Lemenger).  The final scene, with its dual proposals (that’s not a spoiler–it’s Austen) is a joy to watch as the couples are very well matched.  The lighting, with a the giant projected moon in the background and blue tones to suggest evening, as well as the appropriate period music, sets the scene well and bring the show to a fitting conclusion.

This is a strong cast all around, but the real standouts for me were McClain as Marianne, with all her immature impulsiveness at first and her real growth as a character as events progress, and Diane Mair as Lucy Steele, who (pun intended) steals every scene she’s in as the crass, manipulative schemer with designs on Edward.  Lemenger is also excellent as Elinor, portraying the character with less outward reserve than I’ve seen in other adaptions, but with all the maturity and strength that the role requires, and Penny Slusher as Mrs. Dashwood turns in a strong comic performance.  Also of note in this strong ensemble are V Craig Heidenreich as the friendly but bombastic Sir John Middleton and Nicole Orth-Pallavicini as the sisters’ self-appointed mentor and matchmaker, Mrs. Jennings.

There were a few moments where I found myself comparing this to the various filmed adaptations I’ve seen, but I think it stands up well on its own, and Jory has done an excellent job of adapting the material for the stage.  It’s a fitting Valentine to Jane Austen and Regency England, and a real treat for Austen-geeks and non-geeks alike.

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