Originally Published in The Wall Street Journal
By Terry Teachout | July 6, 2017
With ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘The Book of Will’ the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival broadens its once-sacrosanct repertory.
What does it mean to be a “Shakespeare festival” in the second decade of the 21st century? Like many such enterprises, the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival is in the process of broadening its once-sacrosanct repertory, so much so that two of its three current mainstage productions are premieres. One, however, is a play about Shakespeare, while the other is a new adaptation of a novel as classic—and familiar—as anything the Bard ever wrote. The biggest and best news, though, is that both plays are the stuff hits are made of, and Hudson Valley has brought off a first-class coup by launching them in the same season.
Kate Hamill, whose stage versions of “Sense and Sensibility” and “Vanity Fair” were deservedly successful, has now turned her hand to a second Jane Austen novel, “Pride and Prejudice.” You wouldn’t think she’d have anything fresh to say about a book that to date has been filmed a half-dozen times (not counting “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) and put on the stage at least as often. You’d be wrong, though, for the ever-ingenious Ms. Hamill has given us something completely and delightfully different, a smallish-cast period-dress “Pride and Prejudice” that she’s done over in the revved-up manner of a Hollywood screwball comedy. The language is traditional but the approach is thoroughly modern, with six of the eight actors playing multiple roles, several of them in drag. Cleverly compressed—one of the five Bennet sisters has vanished into the memory hole—and adapted with fizzy, festive freedom, Ms. Hamill’s “P&P” is full of “Bringing Up Baby”-style slapstick and the kind of barely controlled chaos that you’d expect to see in a five-door Feydeau farce.
Such a show demands worthy staging, and Amanda Dehnert, a prodigally gifted director whose work is not yet widely known on the East Coast, delivers the goods with gusto. Having previously seen her Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions of “Julius Caesar” and “My Fair Lady,” I wouldn’t have guessed that Ms. Dehnert also has a knack for pratfalls and spit takes, but her way with “P&P” is so adroit as to make me wonder what she’d do with a full-fledged farce like “Loot” or “Noises Off.” At the same time, she also makes sure to darken the mood just before intermission, reminding us that in the 19th century the finding of a husband was no laughing matter for unmonied women like the Bennet sisters.
In addition to having written the script, Ms. Hamill plays Lizzy Bennet with winning impishness, and Jason O’Connell, a well-known Hudson Valley face, is wonderfully, almost incapacitatingly shy as Mr. Darcy. Top comic honors, though, go to Mark Bedard, who doubles as the fathomlessly snooty Miss Bingley and the disgustingly obsequious Mr. Collins. Either one of his performances would have been noteworthy, but that the same person should be playing both parts (as well as that of Mr. Wickham) is a truly stupendous piece of quick-change clownery.
If you can’t make it to Hudson Valley, Ms. Dehnert’s production will be transferring to New York’s Primary Stages in November. I can’t imagine that it will stop there: Like “Vanity Fair” before it, Ms. Hamill’s “Pride and Prejudice” is the kind of show that would flourish in a small Broadway house. Should “P&P” fail to receive the commercial production it deserves, you can bet that it’ll be the toast of the regional-theater circuit.
THE BOOK OF WILL
Lauren Gunderson’s “The Book of Will,” Hudson Valley’s second premiere, is a different sort of period piece, a play about the posthumous publication in 1623 of the First Folio, in which fully authentic texts of most of Shakespeare’s plays saw print for the very first time. If that sounds like dry-as-dust pedantry to you, fear not: Ms. Gunderson, whose plays are hugely popular outside New York but has yet to receive a major production in Manhattan, has given us a serious comedy, by turns charming and darkly poignant, in which a history lesson is embedded so gracefully that you’ll scarcely know you’ve been schooled.
Davis McCallum, Hudson Valley’s artistic director, has given “The Book of Will” a lively staging that’s as close to ideal as it’s possible to get, but the play is so soundly made that it would come off as well in a less deft production. “The Book of Will” is a cinch to be taken up by Shakespeare festivals all over America—as well it should be.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
By Kate Hamill
Adapted from the novel by Jane Austen
Directed by Amanda Dehnert
A co-production with Primary Stages
Running June 10 – September 4, 2017
THE BOOK OF WILL
By Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Davis McCallum
Running June 9 – July 28, 2017