The nation’s premier radio theater company made a stop in Richmond this week to perform Austen’s masterpiece in a way we’re not completely used to.
The first thing you notice onstage before an L.A. Theatre Works production begins is a tiny door. If you’re like me, you immediately think of radio dramas in the 1940s in which a detective would run down the stairs while a guy at the studio clopped some shoes on a board to simulate the appropriate sounds of footfalls. And you wouldn’t be wrong!
L.A. Theatre Works keeps the grand tradition of radio theater alive, recording most of their productions in their hometown in front of a live audience. It’s not just sitting around and reading from a script, like you might imagine. The actors are not only in character, they’re in costume–weaving around a series of microphones and occasionally donning a new hat or scarf to indicate a change in character (many actors in the performance play multiple roles). The light blocking keeps the production from feeling stale, and the clever switcheroos are designed to happen under your nose without you paying attention. It’s hard, anyway, to break your focus from the character who’s speaking at the time. The actors are all top-notch, and the best part about the whole setup is that, given some very basic building blocks (people, some sounds, costumes), your brain needs very little encouragement to construct the rest of the scene.
This past Wednesday, L.A. Theatre Works performed Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at Camp Concert Hall at the Modlin Center for the Arts to a regrettably skimpy crowd. Decked out in Georgian English garb, the nine cast members swirled around each other with their bodies as well as with their words. I’d never seen P&P in theater form before (though I’m more than a little familiar with the film versions), and it turns out Jane Austen’s witty dialogue rolls off the tongue just as easily on stage as it does in a misty field at sunrise (buh!). And though you may look at actor Nick Toren and think “Really? That’s the dashing Darcy? SHALL THE SHADES OF PEMBERLEY BE THUS POLLUTED??”, you’re soon swayed into acquiescence after a few lines from a beautiful voice.1
It was almost instantly obvious why the actors in this production had been cast they way they had been cast–they had only to open their mouths and begin to speak. Julia McIlvaine doesn’t resemble any Elizabeth Bennets we’ve seen before, but her voice is melodic, lilting, and full of emotion. She could read the transcripts from the most recent presidential debates and make them sound like touching exchanges stuffed with feeling. Legend has it that Austen read her manuscripts aloud to amuse her family, and just like in radio theater, the speaker must have gotten her family so far before their imaginations did the rest. Each actor did a bang-up job, causing me more than once to realize, “Oh, professionals! So that’s the difference!”, but as usual the cake was taken by Mrs. Bennet (Jane Carr, who also played the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh).
Austen adaptations usually have to leave out some of the less crucial scenes, and I found it interesting that adaptor Christina Calvit never sent Jane Bennet to London, never had Lydia and Kitty running after Denny, and never put Elizabeth and Wickham much together. The first two omissions make sense, but the last made the Elizabeth/Wickham tension a little harder to swallow.
All told, it was an excellent way to spend an evening, and one could always use a little P&P refresher course now and then, particularly when you have the chance to see a live performance by really talented actors. The only real disappointment was the lack of support from the community, perhaps due to a relatively high price point ($30-ish) or a less rigorous marketing strategy than the sold-out Philip Glass or Mike Birbiglia shows we’ve attended lately. Or maybe it’s just that people think they’ve seen one Pride and Prejudice, so they’ve seen them all.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. See one Pride and Prejudice, and you’ve just set one toe on the grounds of Pemberley. If and when L.A. Theatre Works return to the shores of the James, consider giving them a try.
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- No offense, Nick. Darcy just has a certain something around the eyes and mouth. A brooding yet sensitive line, shall we say? It’s possible that I’ve thought about this many a time. ↩