12 Winters Blog

Austen’s successful debut at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Posted in July 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 7, 2019

Every summer central Illinoisans are treated to the pleasures of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington, now in its 42nd season. The tradition has been to offer two works by Shakespeare and one of another sort. For the 2019 season, the non-Shakespeare offering is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice (1813), marking the first time Austen has been adapted for the ISF stage. I will cut to the chase: Go see it.

I attended the preview performance July 5. The evening’s sultriness did not discourage Festival fans from attending. The players, managing in their Regency garb, played to a sold-out house. In back, the artistic crew took a last look before finalizing the production for the summer. Among those taking notes was Deanna Jent, who adapted and directed Pride and Prejudice. Jent, a professor at Fontbonne University, also directed last summer’s performance of Merry Wives of Windsor. Those Regency costumes, which effectively broadcast the Austen vibe, were designed by Misti Bradford.

The central figure of the novel, strong-willed Elizabeth Bennet (second born of five daughters, all in search of husbands), was played by Aidaa Peerzada, who shone especially brightly when clashing on stage with prideful Mr. Darcy (Fred Geyer), but downright radiantly when on stage with the imperious Lady De Bourgh (Lisa Gaye Dixon). Peerzada and Geyer had a tall order to fill, almost as tall as a Regency gentleman’s hat, to capture the chemistry of one of literature’s most famous couples, and they have risen to the challenge admirably.

However, I must especially commend Dixon’s performance as the meddling Lady De Bourgh. The part has limited stage time, but Dixon commanded the space, just as the role required, and De Bourgh’s verbal sparring with Elizabeth brought out Peerzada’s best. Fourth of July¬† fireworks fizzled compared to Dixon and Peerzada’s pyrotechnics.

All of the performers added to the delightful adaptation, including Kevin McKillip (Mr. Bennet), Nisi Sturgis (Mrs. Bennet), Ashley Hart Adams (Jane Bennet, the eldest sister and Elizbeth’s special confidant), and Chauncy Thomas (the always affable Mr. Bingley). I especially appreciate McKillip’s sense of comedic timing. The veteran actor perhaps captures Jane Austen’s dry wit best of all the talented players in the cast — at times eliciting a roar from the audience merely by the perfect look.

The highlight of the production — for me, and it would seem the audience as a whole — was Jordan Coughtry’s interpretation of Mr. Collins, a cousin of Mr. Bennet who arrives to assess the Bennet property that he will one day inherit and to select which Bennet daughter he will marry (at least, that is his design). Coughtry is a remarkable Mr. Collins, sculpting Austen’s clownish clergyman into a character who is both true to the novelist’s original vision but also unique among the many actors who have portrayed him on the screen. Coughtry’s Collins is pompous, over-confident, insensitive — and yet wholly endearing . . . to the audience, that is, but not so much to the Bennets.

Coughtry is almost too good. He owns the stage in the first half of the play, which could be seen as problematic since Mr. Collins is a secondary character in Pride and Prejudice — important certainly, but normally one thinks of Elizabeth and Jane as dominating the reader’s attention. Perhaps fortunately, Mr. Collins’s stage time is lessened in the second half of the play, which allows Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy, and other characters more central to the plot to shine a bit brighter.

Nevertheless, Coughtry’s Collins commands the largest laughs, and the audience always perked up when he stepped on stage.

My only concern regarding the production is that it closely resembles the Joe Wright-directed film version of 2005 (starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth and Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy; screenplay by Deborah Moggach). Rather than an adaptation of the novel, at times the Festival play seems more like a pastiche of the Joe Wright film. I recognize, however, that this is an idiosyncratic concern. Besides having taught the novel in college courses a few times, I have watched the film many, many times. It is one of my favorites, and I’ve shown it to classes more times than I can count. The typical Festival-goer would not be burdened with such familiarity.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting something like plagiarism or even mimicry, not at all. The unfolding of the play definitely adheres to Austen’s original work in ways that the Wright/Moggach film does not. In fact, one of the things I admire most about Deanna Jent’s adaptation is that she oftentimes advances the plot via characters’ narrating the action in third-person snippets taken from the pages of the novel, or nearly so. It is a clever way to compress the time span of the original and bring into the script some of Austen’s narrative voice — a treat for actors and audience alike.

Speaking of treats, Jent’s adaptation also makes terrific use of dance, as does Austen’s novel. In straitlaced Regency England, dancing was critical to courtship, and Austen’s Netherfield Ball scene is one of the greats in all of English-language literature. Likewise, Jent masterfully employs dance in the service of plot advancement, characterization, and mood-setting. (Sarah West is credited as dance captain for the ISF production, and Gregory Merriman as choreographer — kudos to both.)

It’s difficult to imagine a central Illinois summer without the Shakespeare Festival, and this production of Pride and Prejudice is yet another triumph in its proud history. I repeat: Go see it while you have the opportunity.

(As You Like It and Caesar are the Bardic offerings this summer.)