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Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Directed by Jenn Thompson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
December 1, 2017

Kim Wong, Justine Salata, Austen Danielle Bohmer, Harveen Sandhu
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jane Austen sequels and adaptations are nothing new. From modernizations like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries to mysteries like Death Comes to Pemberley to the countless fan stories on a multitude of sites online, writers like to get creative with Austen’s characters, with results ranging from puzzling to delightful. The latest production from the Rep, the funny and festive Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is solidly on the “delightful” end of the spectrum, with an impressive script, excellent production values and a top-notch cast.

As the title suggests, the story finds the familiar characters from Austen’s most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, celebrating Christmas at the home of the now happily married Elizabeth (Harveen Sandhu) and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Rhett Guter). While Elizabeth, the main character of Pride and Prejudice, and Darcy are prominently featured, as are sisters Jane (Kim Wong) and Lydia (Austen Danielle Bohmer), the main focus of story is on the often neglected middle sister Mary (Justine Salata), portrayed here as earnest, socially awkward, and unsure of her own future as two of her sisters have married happily, one insists she’s happy in her marriage although evidence suggests otherwise, and another (the unseen Kitty) is happily spending the holiday with her aunt and uncle in London. Mary is determined to make the most of her time at Pemberley despite feeling overshadowed by her elder sisters and their husbands, and her sisters soon learn there is more to her than than had previously acknowledged. Also invited for the festivities is Lord Arthur de Bourgh (Miles G. Townsend), the scholarly and socially awkward nephew and surprising heir of the recently deceased Lady Catherine. Arthur, who is most at home among his books, isn’t comfortable with his new noble title and his unexpected inheritance of his late aunt’s home, but he’s intrigued by the Darcys and soon hits it off with Mary, as the two bond over mutual interests and soon have to deal with feelings neither of them had expected. But more surprises are in store as well, with some unpleasant news brought by Arthur’s imperious cousin, the late Lady Catherine’s daughter Anne de Bourgh (Victoria Frings).

As much as I love the source material, this show takes me as something of a surprise especially in terms of its sparkling wit and humor. I expected an interesting show, but I didn’t expect to laugh this much. I’m also impressed by how true to the spirit of Austen this story is, and how well-realized the characters are. The familiar characters of Elizabeth, Darcy, Jane and Mr. Bingley (Peterson Townsend), are here, as are Mary and Lydia, but the playwrights manage to do a great job of making them recognizable as Austen’s characters, but also of expanding on them, especially in the cases of Mary and the surprisingly nuanced Lydia. Mary has become a likable, relatable lead character here especially, delightfully played by Salata with a steely determination and a deliciously dry wit. She’s well-matched by Jackson’s highly physical, amiably awkward portrayal of Mary’s unlikely suitor Arthur de Bourgh. Their chemistry is delightful and, shall I say, adorkable. The rest of the cast is strong as well, with Sandhu’s warm, encouraging Elizabeth and Guter’s devoted Darcy, and Bohmer’s enigmatic Lydia the real standouts. What’s struck me especially about this production is the attention to the relationship of the sisters, and all four performers do well to portray a believable sisterly bond.  Ensemble members Max Bahneman, Johnny Briseno, and Molly Burris also contribute well to the story as the Pemberley household staff doubling as stagehands.

In addition to being wonderfully charming and witty, this production also looks wonderful. Wilson Chin’s sumtuously detailed set effectively brings the tastefully opulent Pemberley to the stage, and David Toser’s detailed period costumes add to the charm. It’s a Regency Christmas in all its festive glory, featuring Elizabeth’s new project, an unusual German custom called a “Christmas Tree”. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg and sound designer Philip S. Rosenberg.

This is such a fun show. With an outstanding lead performance and a first-rate supporting cast, along with stunning production values and and overall Austen-like atmosphere coupled with the festivity of the holiday season, this production is simply a winner. It’s a real treat for the holiday season. Go see it!

Justine Salata, Miles G. Jackson
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley until December 24, 2017.

 

 

 

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Angel Street (Gaslight)
by Patrick Hamilton
Directed by Jenn Thompson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 16, 2015

Clark Scott Carmichael, Janie Brookshire Photo by Eric Woolsey Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Clark Scott Carmichael, Janie Brookshire
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Angel Street, also known as Gaslight, is a show that’s possibly more well-known for its title than for its story, as “gaslight” has become a common term for a certain type of psychological manipulation.  It also inspired a celebrated 1944 film adaptation starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and a young Angela Lansbury.  At the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, the classic thriller has been brought to life in a a remarkably impressive production, with a strong cast, impressive staging and truly stunning production values.

This play, a suspenseful psychological drama, takes place in London in the 1880’s, in a well-appointed house on Angel Street. Bella Manningham (Janie Brookshire) has recently moved here with her domineering husband, Jack (Clark Scott Carmichael), who from the beginning appears to already be playing mind games with his impressionable wife. She’s constantly confused when household items like pictures on the wall and grocery bills go missing, and she worries that she will go the way of her own mother and end up committed to a mental asylum. There’s nobody else in the house but the household staff, represented by two maids of distinctly different dispositions–the older, more kindhearted Elizabeth (Amelia White), and the young, impertinent Nancy (Rachel Kenney), so Bella is especially startled when a mysterious police inspector, Rough (Geoffrey Wade) shows up unexpectedly while her husband is away, espousing an unsettling theory concerning Jack. As the evidence unfolds, including mysterious sounds in the forbidden attic and lowering light in the gas lamps, Bella is enlightened as to what type of man she married, although she’s not entirely sure what to believe, and there isn’t a lot of time for Rough to prove his theory before Jack returns.

The show has the flavor of an old-fashioned mystery-thriller, with a touch of humor thrown in for relief from the gradually building suspense. Staged cleverly by director Jenn Thompson, the play maintains the sense of mystery and tension throughout the production, as the earnest but bewildered Bella is driven further into confusion and her husband Jack’s air of sheer menace intensifies. The acting here is impressive, with Brookshire portraying many levels of character as Bella, who at first appears to be a something of a stereotypical naive Victorian wife, but descends further into confusion and fear as the story unfolds. Carmichael plays the self-absorbed, increasingly creepy and menacing Jack convincingly, as he deftly manipulates his initially impressionable wife. As the aptly named Rough, Wade is amiable, with an unrefined, somewhat bumbling air at first, initially confusing Bella about as much as Jack does, although Wade makes it clear that Rough knows what he’s doing despite his disorganized appearance. There are also strong performances from White as the loyal Elizabeth and Kenney as the flirty, ambitious Nancy, who clearly isn’t fond of Bella and may be too fond of Jack.

As great as the performances are, however, the real star of this production is its remarkable set. Designed by Wilson Chin, the set is as responsible for adding to the suspenseful atmosphere of the play as any of the actors. It’s deceptive at first, appearing to be a basic, well-appointed Victorian drawing room set, but as the story develops, the true genius of the design is revealed, as walls become transparent to reveal other rooms and floors in the house. This effect is aided well by the excellent lighting, designed by Peter E. Sargent, and Rusty Wandall’s excellent sound design. The precise timing of the staging, along with the set, light and sound effects, contributes to the increasingly tense atmosphere of the play.  There are also some very detailed, richly appointed period specific costumes by David Toser that lend a further air of authenticity to the production.

Although I had seen the Gaslight film many years ago when I was a teenager, I didn’t remember it particularly well and I had never seen the play. This production at the Rep is an ideal re-introduction to the story. Although there are elements of well-pitched humor here and there, the overall atmosphere of this production is one of chilling, impeccably timed suspense.  It’s a fitting play for the Halloween season. If you’re looking to be scared as well as entertained, Angel Street at the Rep is not to be missed.

Geoffrey Wade, Janie Brookshire Photo by Eric Woolsey Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Geoffrey Wade, Janie Brookshire
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s production of Angel Street (Gaslight) runs until November 8th. 

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