Romance takes back seat to social satire in charming Austen adaptation

Mr. Darcy (Justin King) busies himself writing a letter while the woman he pines after, Elizabeth Bennet (Elizabeth Harelik, in yellow dress), visits her sister Jane (Beth Josephsen) in Actors’ Theatre’s production of Pride & Prejudice. (Photos by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

In his printed “Director’s Statement,” Mark Mann complains that some of us—and by “us,” I mean men—tend to dismiss Pride & Prejudice as a “chick flick.”

Technically, what’s going on in Schiller Park isn’t any kind of flick because it’s live theater, but we take his point. Jane Austen’s original novel was more interested in critiquing society than in giving her readers a soggy love story. And that comes through in Jon Jory’s stage adaptation and in Mann’s production of that adaptation.

Set in early 19th century England, the tale revolves around the Bennet household, which consists of a father (David Jon Krohn), a mother (Danielle Mann) and their five daughters. Because Mr. Bennet is not allowed to leave his estate to a female heir, Mrs. Bennet is determined to secure their daughters’ fortunes by finding them well-off husbands. Hence, she’s excited when the wealthy Mr. Bingley (Trenton Weaver) moves into the neighborhood.

Mrs. Bennet’s hope is buoyed when this financially worthy gentleman seems taken with her eldest daughter, Jane (Beth Josephsen). However, things go less smoothly when Bingley’s even wealthier friend Mr. Darcy (Justin King) meets second-oldest daughter Elizabeth (Elizabeth Harelik). Darcy seems fascinated by the outspoken young woman, but he’s so haughty and untactful that he immediately puts her off.

Mr. Bingley (Trenton Weaver, left) and Mr. Darcy (Justin King) are both attracted to Bennet sisters, but the former does a better job of showing it.

That sets up a romantic dance as nuanced and delicate as the period-appropriate choreography Meghan Western provides for the play’s party scenes.

Elizabeth’s opinion of Darcy sinks lower and lower, especially after she meets his estranged childhood friend, Wickham (JT Walker III). As for Darcy, he finds Elizabeth increasingly attractive, but he’s so stiff and socially inept that she doesn’t have an inkling of his true feelings. Meanwhile, others conspire to keep the two apart, including the smitten Miss Bingley (Natalia White) and the regal Lady Catherine (Cate Blair Wilhelm).

Andrew Weibel’s pastel scenery and Pam Bloom’s costumes help to define a formal era when even Elizabeth’s long-married parents still address each other as “Mr. Bennet” and “Mrs. Bennet.”

Director Mann occasionally allows his cast to farce things up for comedic effect. This is particularly true of Douglas Gustafson’s Mr. Collins, whose high-pitched cackle make it immediately clear that his suit to make Elizabeth his wife will be rejected with extreme prejudice. But the production’s real charm stems from subtle portrayals—such as Walker’s Wickham—that prevent us from predicting just how it will arrive at a suitably happy ending.

Most of all, its charm stems from Harelik’s heroic but gullible Elizabeth and King’s excruciating awkward Darcy. We suspect the two are destined to be together, but the actors turn them into such an odd couple that it’s hard to believe they’re ever going to get there.

Actors’ Theatre will present Pride & Prejudice through July 16 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are pay what you will; bring a blanket or lawn chair. Reservations for seats or keepsake blankets are available for $20. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

Advertisements

Wilde comedy pits blackmailer against a ‘dandy’ hero

Mrs. Chevely (Beth Josephsen) blackmails Sir Robert Chiltern (Ross Shirley) into supporting a scam in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. (photos by Richard Ades)
Mrs. Chevely (Beth Josephsen) blackmails Sir Robert Chiltern (Ross Shirley) into supporting a scam in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. (photos by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

Wilde in the Park hasn’t been nearly popular as Shakespeare in the Park, but Actors’ Theatre’s production of An Ideal Husband shows it can be done.

I had my doubts at first. Set in London in 1895, the play opens with a party scene during which a stageful of upper-crust Brits trade some of Oscar Wilde’s wittiest comments about society, the sexes and sundry other topics. But on the muggy night I attended, they had to compete for viewers’ attention with noisy insects and other commotions from both inside and outside Schiller Park. Added to the fast pace of the repartee, that meant few of the satirical jokes got much reaction from the overheated audience.

Luckily, the situation improved once the plot kicked into gear. Even the insects quieted down, as if they were eager to learn what would happen next.

The gears begin to mesh when the nefarious Mrs. Chevely (Beth Josephsen) offers a shady proposition to the party’s host, Sir Robert Chiltern (Ross Shirley). Revealing that she knows a damaging secret about Chiltern, a rising member of the House of Commons, Chevely threatens to spill the beans unless he throws his support behind a scam involving the construction of a canal in Argentina.

Chiltern reluctantly agrees, fearing a scandal would wreck both his career and his marriage. However, his sudden about-face on the bogus canal raises the suspicions of his wife (Sonda Staley), a former classmate of Chevely who knows all too well what kind of mischief she’s capable of. Lady Chiltern asks for help from the couple’s close friend, Lord Goring (Amari Ingram), who has his own reasons for distrusting Chevely.

Lord Goring (Amari Ingram, left) hears a startling confession from his friend Sir Robert Chiltern (Ross Shirley).
Lord Goring (Amari Ingram, left) hears a startling confession from his friend Sir Robert Chiltern (Ross Shirley).

In effect, Goring is called on to save the day, but we’re given little reason to think he’s up to the task. A “dandy”—which seems to be something like a fop but with fewer effeminate mannerisms—Goring is fixated on his appearance and clothes and restricts his conversation to the most trivial of concerns. Is such a person capable of saving Sir Robert from the conniving Mrs. Chevely? The answer to that question is left unanswered until the intrigue-filled second act.

A comedy like An Ideal Husband—a witty period piece with a dandified hero—could well have tempted its cast to farce things up. Instead, director Philip J. Hickman keeps portrayals sufficiently grounded that we actually care what happens.

Josephsen is blithely calculating as Mrs. Chevely, while Shirley and Staley earn our sympathy as the flawed Lord Chiltern and his upright wife. Ingram is mostly solid as Goring, though some of his lines could be delivered with more conviction. (Maybe he was distracted by a headset mike that occasionally malfunctioned on the night I attended.)

In an important secondary role, Robyn Rae Stype is amusing as Chiltern’s sister Mabel, who trades flirtatious quips with Goring. Funniest of all is Troy Anthony Harris as Goring’s dad, the Earl of Caversham, who never misses an opportunity to tell his frivolous son what a disappointment he is.

Supporting roles are nicely played by Joyce Leahy, Camille Bullock, AJ Copp and Ben Sostrom. All of the players are elegantly attired by Dayton Willison, whose costume designs are unobtrusively framed by Andrew Weibel’s white-on-white set.

Besides its absorbing plot, An Ideal Husband is an interesting portrait of the sexual roles and attitudes in the late 19th century. Lady Chiltern is clearly an early feminist, but some of her female friends are more than content to leave politics and other intellectual pursuits to the men.

Meanwhile, Wilde’s story of an ambitious politician who can’t resist the temptation of an underhanded deal remains, sadly, as timely as ever.

Actors’ Theatre will present An Ideal Husband through Sept. 4 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are pay what you will (donations requested). Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org

Tale of jealous Moor presented with passion and power

Othello (Christopher C. Austin III) consults with his trusted lieutenant, Iago (Matthew Michael Moore), in Actors’ Theatre’s production of Othello (photo by Richard Ades)
Othello (Christopher C. Austin III, left) consults with “honest Iago” (Matthew Michael Moore) in Actors’ Theatre’s production of Othello (photos by Richard Ades)

 

By Richard Ades

A stirring production of Othello offers evidence that Central Ohio’s Shakespeare-in-the-park troupe remains in good hands.

This is the first season Actors’ Theatre has put together under the leadership of Philip J. Hickman, who was elevated to artistic director following the untimely death of John S. Kuhn early last year. The lineup is promising and challenging, with an Oscar Wilde comedy and a new adaptation of an Alexandre Dumas potboiler in addition to two of the Bard’s strongest works. And if the first production is any guide, that lineup will be brought to the stage with consummate skill.

Directed by Matt Hermes, the troupe’s production of Othello is brisk and passionate. At a key moment, it’s also horrifying—to the extent that parents might want to leave their most impressionable children at home.

Unusually for a Shakespearean tragedy, Othello keeps its focus almost exclusively on its three central characters: Othello, a Moorish military hero who has recently fallen in love and married; Desdemona, the young Venetian woman who has become his wife; and Iago, an ensign who is determined to get revenge after Othello passed him over for promotion. All three are given compelling portrayals in the Schiller Park production.

Desdemona (Lindsey Fisher) finds her new husband (Christopher C. Austin III) is becoming increasingly suspicious
Desdemona (Lindsey Fisher) finds her new husband (Christopher C. Austin III) is becoming increasingly suspicious

As Othello, Christopher C. Austin III is the image of militaristic dignity when he’s functioning as a commanding officer, but he’s so smitten by his new love that he can’t help showing his feelings whenever his bride is around. As Desdemona, Lindsey Fisher is guileless and genteel but just as smitten. The result is that PDAs abound whenever the newlyweds are in the same room.

As Iago, the play’s true protagonist, Matthew Michael Moore comes across as an evil puppeteer. He clearly looks down on those around him and coolly uses their loves, desires and prejudices to his advantage. Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most devious villains, and Moore plays him with subtlety and dark humor.

Updated here to the 1820s—a change that affects the costumes and weapons but otherwise has little impact—the tragedy centers on Iago’s campaign to awaken in Othello the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy. To do this, he invents reasons to suspect Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio (David Tull), the lieutenant who was promoted in Iago’s place.

Two people play willing or unwilling roles in the campaign: Roderigo, who lusts after Desdemona; and Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid. David Widder-Varhegyi plays the former as a scamp and a gullible fool, while Susan Wismar plays the latter as a decent woman who is cowed into obeying her husband but is appalled when she realizes what he’s up to.

Andrew Weibel’s set seems more elaborate than usual for the outdoor troupe, even including a small fountain. Emily Jeu’s colorful costumes help to define the time and place.

The sound, designed by William Bragg (with Fia Friend operating the sound board), is as clear as I’ve ever heard it at the Schiller amphitheater. At last Friday’s performance, the only distortion occurred when Austin’s Othello shouted his most dramatic lines, overwhelming the amplification. A little restraint may be needed to avoid that problem in the future.

As one would expect in a Shakespearean tragedy, there are deaths. Two of them happen so quickly, and on such a crowded stage, that many viewers will miss them. On the other hand, one murder is the most protracted and horrific act of violence I can remember seeing at the Schiller amphitheater.

Is it excessive? Not at all. It’s merely the final evidence that Actors’ Theatre takes its role as Columbus’s Shakespeare-in-the-park troupe very seriously.

Actors’ Theatre will present Othello through June 19 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: pay what you will (bring a blanket or lawn chair); reserved seats or blankets are available for $20. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.