Sigh no more, ladies. Sigh no more. For it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
Oh sure, men are constant never. One foot on sea and one on shore and all that. We single ladies have been reciting these lines for 400 years. But we have also known, for two centuries, that there are still a few Mr. Darcys left in this world. And until we find one, we might as well go see a play about him, plus a comedy that ends with the all the single guys being admonished, “Get thee a wife!”
Both Much Ado About Nothing (at Shakespeare Theatre Company, directed by Ethan McSweeny) and Pride and Prejudice (at Round House, directed by Blake Robison) are gorgeous productions that succeed thanks to William Shakespeare and Jane Austen’s timeless gifts of wit and situational comedy. Beatrice and Benedick and Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are canonical cousins, destined lovers whose disdain for each other has won over readers the world over. In any stage production, however, the actors must trump not only people on pages, but cinema actors who won Oscars in bibliophiles’ heads: Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in a 1993 bucolic frolic of a film, and Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in the seminal 1995 BBC miniseries.
As if competing with Colin Firth weren’t trouble enough, the lead actors in both shows are also vying with Shakespeare and Austen’s colorful supporting characters. Pride and Prejudice’s would-be suitor Mr. Collins might be the only man in British lit more tedious than Much Ado’s Constable Dogberry, while the latter play’s Leonato rivals the former’s Mr. Bennet in the role of doting father out to keep randy soldiers from soiling his daughters.
The plots of both plays run parallel. Two impertinent but loyal women (Elizabeth and Beatrice) neglect their own love lives while fighting to raise the marriage prospects of their more demure relations (older sister Jane and younger cousin Hero.) And the crisis that pushes these two formidable ladies and their reluctant lovers closer to each other and to forgone conclusions? A taint of premarital sex that would dishonor their houses.
Horrors! The imprudence! How very vexing!
At Round House, Pride and Prejudice benefits from a fastpaced Regency English script (by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan) that is, given its commitment to verbatim dialogue, truer to Austen’s text than McSweeny’s Much Ado is to Shakespeare’s. McSweeny has reset the action to a resplendent Cuban sugar plantation, circa 1930, and tweaked the text to serve his purposes. Gone are Beatrice’s references to cold Januaries; in are Beatrice’s lessons in mad, hot ballroom. Still, McSweeny could have tinkered even further. Benedick’s rant about Greek poetry feels a tad too austere once Hero’s wedding dress has been compared to Hedy Lamarr’s.
All the dresses, by the way, are stunning, and much of McSweeny’s stage business is genius (and straight from the text). Beatrice pronounces Claudio “civil as an orange” as she chomps citrus fruit. There are references to “sheets of paper” in the galling scene, so McSweeny has the actors read from scripts as they lay a trap for Benedick. He gives his cast a lot to do, and they’re apparently game for anything, even falling in the onstage fountain.
Robison’s Pride and Prejudice leads, by contrast, seem culled from the Park and Bark School of Drama. Kate Cook, as Elizabeth, and Michael Brusasco, as Darcy, rarely gesture as they trade barbs from 20 feet apart.
Blocking problems are inherent, given that the centerpiece of Narelle Sisson’s set is a whimsical full-scale dollhouse. The rotating house has four rooms, so changing scenes from Longbourn to Pemberley is no problem, but there’s little space left on the sides for contra dancing, and actors are often spaced too far apart. Cook and Brusasco don’t exactly smolder, and since their characters can’t so much as kiss until he has a tête-a-tête with Mr. Bennet, they need all the dramatic tension they can get.
Perhaps because they’re so intent on conveying Elizabeth and Darcy’s disdain for each other, Cook and Brusasco have forgotten to win over the audience. Regrettably, it’s the supporting cast that make Pride and Prejudice worthwhile. Rick Foucheux and Catherine Flye are hysterically funny as the bickering Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, and the hilarity trickles all the way down to the footman, with particular praise due to James Konicek as the fusty Mr. Collins and Susan Lynskey as the imperious Caroline Bingley.
In Much Ado, Derek Smith and Kathryn Meisle do a far better job of fending off the supporting riff-raff. Both actors are in their 50s; McSweeny is not going for sexpot appeal here. But both are also fantastic physical comedians, though Meisle, who stepped into the role in a casting change announced three weeks ago, is slightly too tongue-in-cheek to own the role of Lady Tongue. When Smith exclaims, “By this day! She’s a fair lady,” he’s sincere; Meisle’s “Maiden pride, adieu!” profession, by turn, is just playing along
Rachel Spencer Hewitt, as a rhumba-loving Margaret, and Adrian Sparks as the commanding Leonato, are the best of the secondary characters. It’s unfortunate that David Emerson Toney, as Don Pedro, sounds like a Paul Robeson impersonator about to burst into “Old Man River.” In a showdown of D.C.’s finest character actors, Floyd King’s Verges is funnier than Ted van Griethuysen’s Dogberry. And it seems worth noting, at the risk of sounding like a postcolonial killjoy, that there’s only one Hispanic actor in the cast, and that only the lower-class characters speak with Cuban accents. Everyone else sounds fresh off the boat from Great Britain, speaking in clear, digestible pentameter. Not a word goes to waste.
“Man is a giddy thing,” Smith pronounces, after Benedick flip-flops to the marital side of the aisle. He’s right, of course. Men may not know what they want, but theater marketers know what women do. So, ladies? Sigh not so this holiday season. Get thee to one or both shows. And this is my conclusion.