Community pride without prejudice in Austen adaptation

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If it isn’t already, it should be a truth universally acknowledged that community theater is awesome.

Local theater companies increase accessibility to the arts by giving people, young and old, an opportunity to participate in theater as actors, tech crew members, volunteers and audience members — all at a reasonable cost and distance from home. Best of all, community theater productions use their resources, whatever they may be, with such creativity and flair that they pull off an exceedingly entertaining show.

All of the best aspects of community theater are present in the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley’s production of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” The play, adapted from the novel for the stage by Constance Cox, featured actors from a wide variety of backgrounds — everything from software engineers to hair stylists — and it opened last weekend at the John Hinkel Park Amphitheatre in North Berkeley. It is counterintuitive to imagine a production of “Pride and Prejudice” — a story that thrives on rigid formality and manners — in an untidy outdoor theater tucked away in a forested corner of the Berkeley Hills. Certainly several of the story’s characters would find the arrangement most uncivilized, but for audience members today, it is a charming venue.

With a curtain of leafy green trees and an intermittent orchestra of crows, cars and the occasional plane, the actors entered the stage with enthusiastic vivacity. They took great joy in playing their respective characters — perhaps as much joy as the audience had in watching the story of the Bennet family unfold.

The Bennets are, in American terms, a middle-class family of four daughters — there are five daughters in the book — living in late-18th century England. But because the family’s property and fortune are entrusted only to a male heir, matriarch Mrs. Bennet (Pennell Chapin) is determined to find all of her children wealthy husbands to save them from poverty and spinsterhood. Unfortunately for her, the story’s protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet (Laura Domingo), sparks controversy by rejecting all her mother’s plans and, indeed, all of her potential male suitors, even the handsome, proud and very rich Mr. Darcy (Lijesh Krishnam).

Overall, the show rolls along with a light and engaging script, intermingling comic moments with the expected romance. Occasionally, the dialogue becomes a bit wordy and cumbersome as the script attempts to condense long chapters from the book into one character’s speech, but for the most part, the story and acting give the play an easy flow, much as director Ann O’Connell had hoped.

“I find that Americans love this romantic picture of British life,” O’Connell said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “[“Pride and Prejudice”] is basically a romance novel, but when you dress it up in the 18th century, it is lovely and satisfying. This play is pure enjoyment.”

The few aspects of the production that came up short didn’t overtly detract from the show but added to the experience of watching a theatrical production in the woods. For example, the set was, by necessity, small, simple and a bit clunky, and from the higher rows of the theater, the bright blue tops of the changing tents peeked out over the top of the stage’s backdrop. Similarly, the shuffling of crew and cast members changing out chairs and framed pictures between scenes stretched, unintentionally, into scenes of their own, starring a rather hilarious butler (Joel Jacobs) who was faintly reminiscent of Ferris Bueller’s BFF, Cameron Frye.

Without pride or prejudice, the spirited cast and crew, casual setting and convivial audience yielded a well-acted and much-loved production of this Austen classic that’s more than worth the time it takes to traipse up the hills.

“Pride and Prejudice” is showing for free at the John Hinkel Amphitheatre on Saturdays and Sundays at 4 p.m. from July 4 to July 20.

 

Contact Anne Ferguson at [email protected].