There is never really a bad time to embrace the particular brand of romantic yearning and fulfillment found in the work of Jane Austen; for the last two centuries, from their initial literary incarnations to BBC miniseries to “Clueless” and “Bridget Jones,” we’ve embraced these stories wholeheartedly. Bristol Riverside Theater, with the advent of the 200th anniversary of Austen’s arguably most popular work, presents an unconventionally staged and surprising adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice.” And it is charming, interesting, and completely true to the source material.
Keith Baker directs longtime audience favorite Jon Jory’s 2005 adaptation here, and it removes some of what might be expected as Austen’s conventions; gone are the sumptuous estates and verdant countryside as backdrops, and Austen’s equally sprawling exposition is brilliantly reframed as little bon mots of introductions, where actors break the fourth wall and drop bite-sized need-to-know facts in the audiences’ laps as asides. It adds a sort of in-on-the-fun, gossipy side to the play, as if we’re watching the whole thing from inside the set of “Downton Abbey.”
We find ourselves in Regency-era England (1813), full of face-to-face politeness and pomp and circumstance in all interactions. All the niceties peel away, however, when marriages threaten the purity of bloodlines; social standing is prized beyond all else, and those perceived as “less than” are treated exactly as such. It is very much still a modern conversation.
With marrying well trumping all else at the top of this story, we meet the Bennets, a socially bruised family of five daughters and a loud and opinionated mother who does not do them any favors socially. We also have our heroine, Elizabeth Bennet (Hannah Kahn), the keen witted second daughter, and her inevitable mate, the sometimes inscrutable Mr. Darcy. And if you do not know anything of this story, know that this is a dance of manners, and that it, of course, ends happily. But the fun lies in how we get there and who we meet along the way.
Michael Halling’s Darcy is appropriately stuffy and regal, and his rare moments of comedy are aptly handled keenly and dryly. As an alternate suitor, Grant Chapman’s Mr. Collins is fantastically drawn — Collins is in place to up the dramatic stakes, as he stands to inherit the family home upon marrying Elizabeth. As with almost the entire cast, Chapman is also tasked with a pair of additional roles, into which he dives joyfully, chewing the versatile and sparse scenery.
Designer Meghan Jones has created a simple and elegant set — doors become columns or an entrance to the garden, as needed, with actors supplying and removing furniture in the blink of an eye — that mirrors the intent of Jory and Baker’s vision; this is a production that, despite its three-hour run-time, cuts right to the chase, eschewing much of the frills and frivolity for an earnest and unabashed attachment to the love story at the heart of the tale. We get plenty of fun in the comedic moments of miscommunications and manners, but there’s a refreshing honesty here that reminds us that we’re viewing a parable: women can be awful to one another via gossip and jealousy, there’s charm in chasing a “bad boy,” and it’s easy to make an idiot out of a man with false intentions. We know that our characters, likable though they may be, are going to behave atrociously, and we love them anyway because of the flourishing language and positivity of this production.
I’d be remiss in not mentioning Jessica Bedford’s Jane, Elizabeth’s older sister; her presence sets up a love triangle that hits home exactly why Elizabeth’s unique qualities make her and Darcy a perfect match. There is a full score of post-performance discussions to be had on the nature of romance and change and how we seek to alter ourselves to find love here. And that’s the real winning element of this production: in stripping away many of the expected frills, we’re left with a true and accessible “Pride and Prejudice” that displays introspective qualities that were always there, but we all may have missed.
For a 200-year-old story, BRT’s “Pride and Prejudice” sure feels relevant, arresting, and fun. It’s a minor miracle of storytelling, and its relatively long run-time goes by without a thought. And that’s the mark of great storytelling — you know the story, you know the players, you know the length of the show, and you will be on the edge of your seat, regardless of all that. It’s a great bit of joy and fun.
Pride and Prejudice, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. Through Sunday, November 24. $35 to $46. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.