By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Ah, young love. The play that opens Thursday at the Citadel takes us into the heart of “rom-com-land,” as Gianna Vacirca puts it, amused. “And we’re not watching grown-ups, adults with lots of romantic history, people who really know themselves, make big mistakes in love.” Au contraire.
Vacirca is sitting in a sunbeam at the Citadel on the Saturday morning of the first preview of Pride and Prejudice this past weekend, reflecting on the version of Jane Austen’s sharp-eyed 1813 comic masterwork we’ll see, in a Mieko Ouchi production.
It’s an ingenious (and by definition playful) eight-actor adaptation by the American actor Kate Hamill, who’s made something of a specialty of re-moulding classic novels — Sense and Sensibility, Little Women, Vanity Fair among them — for the stage. High speed? “We’re still working out some of the truly virtuoso costume changes.” And Vacirca plays clever, spirited Elizabeth Bennet, the most independent-minded of five sisters in a household with a double-sided crisis (a surplus of marriageable daughters and a shortage of cash).
“This is an adaptation that really highlights the classic rom-com quality of the novel,” says Vacirca, an artist whose multiple talents extend to acting, dance, choreography, and the creation of bespoke hand-made pasta for her own company bell’uovo.
“It’s very bright,” says the show’s Lizzie. “And it doesn’t ignore how young and naive these people are, people with no experience of love and romance, people who are incredibly awkward and have terrible relationship models…. And they’re in a situation where they’re having to marry to secure their own safety for the rest of their lives!”
“You know when you see a Hamlet, and you’re watching a 45-year-old, and then you read the play and realize he’s supposed to be an 18-year-old? It changes a lot, (with) his age, his lack of experience, his naïveté, when you watch someone with very little life experience make huge mistakes,” declares Vacirca, who alights in the world of Austen direct from the mean streets of Jersey (she was assistant director/ assistant choreographer for the Citadel’s Jersey Boys). The same with the youthful characters in this version of Pride and Prejudice, she argues. “It’s less Regency drama, more modern farce!”
Not, needless to say, that doors will be slammed or plates of sardines will appear and vanish à la Noises Off, as Vacirca points out. “But people are playing many characters; it’s not natural realism. We’re definitely in a heightened theatrical world. Live music. Lots of gender-bending going on….” Partly there’s a point to be made, she thinks, about the way “there is masculine and feminine in all of us.”And partly the playwright “is messing with a story we all know: how do you make it interesting for another time, have another go at it?”
Among Braydon Dowler-Coltman’s several roles, for example, is Miss Bingley, “the perfect woman,” a nicely ironic touch. Lizzie’s best friend Charlotte is played, straight and with no vocal adjustments, by Garett Ross. “I think people will be surprised how quickly they forget the gender of these folks,” says Vacirca.
“How the actors are approaching the work is from a place of naïveté, lack of experience, raging hormones — in contrast to the beautiful intellectual language, the gorgeous wit and cleverness.” She laughs. “It’s one of the magic tricks of Jane Austen, how people make these humongous mistakes, but they’re able to communicate these humongous mistakes so beautifully.”
As for the parental generation, Mrs. Bennet (Nadien Chu) “runs the family like a military regiment of girls.” Vacirca describes her as “a bad clown … Mother Goose on steroids, such a huge personality. All she cares about is marriage; she takes it very seriously. And in many ways she’s very good at her job.”
Vacirca finds that Lizzie’s personality, in part, “is based on not being her mother…. When you’re forming who you are, and your only landmark of personality is to not be something, I feel like you can’t help but be cynical, scrutinize everything around you, and say that nothing matters.”
At the outset her first thought for Lizzie was Beatrice, the witty verbal fencer and romance-avoider of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Vacirca played her in a Thou Art Here production of a few seasons ago, and there are certainly similarities. Like the Shakespeare heroine Lizzie has “a sharp wit, she sees hypocrisies, she hates the double-standard … and can enjoy the beautiful pleasure of eviscerating someone.” But Lizzie is much younger, much more naive. And, hey, she falls for two men in the course of Pride and Prejudice; “she is a human being, very fallible, with a real beating heart.”
For Vacirca, thoughtful and energetically engaged in thinking about whole plays and not simply roles, it’s been a “beautifully varied” year of investigations into the way people behave inside romantic relationships. Ah, and speaking of romantic relationships and marriages, just before New Year’s she got married “at a wonderful party” to the actor Oscar Derkx, currently in the production of Trouble in Mind that ran in Winnipeg and arrives onstage at the Citadel in a couple of weeks.
After Teatro Live’s season-opener Evelyn Strange (in which Vacirca played an amnesiac searching for her past and finding a future), Jersey Boys, and Pride and Prejudice comes Hannah Moscovitch’s Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes at Theatre Network — a disturbing and nuanced exploration of the relationship between a professor (John Ullyatt) and a student.
Vacirca’s entry point into theatre came via dance, her hard-working single mom “an incredible dancer herself … raised in a very humble farming family. That’s where it all started…. Instead of paying a babysitter, extra-curricular were our babysitters. So I had a lot of ballet, modern dance. Imagine a six-year-old doing Martha Graham!” Then, fatefully, she made a friend, another single-mom kid, and they got Lois Hole scholarships to the Foote theatre classes at the Citadel. “A young Annette Loiselle was my first acting teacher!”
The Vacirca bent has always been for the the physical. She played sports, including soccer at a competitive level. It was when she got into the BFA acting program at the U of A that “my life changed,” she says. “I could tell I had a very different background than my classmates, less conventional training. And it only made me more comfortable to be experimental with movement in shows…. ‘what if we do this? what if we do that?’”
The Pride and Prejudice cast may be decked out in Regency period wear, as she says, but “there are definitely screwball comedy moments. And being comfortable physically is so important.” It means that she isn’t daunted by suggestive stage directions like “she has a heart attack” or “her brain melts out of her ears.” Says Vacirca, “you attack with physicality.” Ditto asides like “getting weak at the knees” or the feeling of wanting to kick yourself after an awkward encounter.
As a choreographer and movement director with directing in her future — “I really like stories; I really like trying to figure out people why they do what they do” — Vacirca finds her theatre analogies in team sports. “I find acting and making plays is an athletic team sport … needing facilitation, outside coordination, physical energy.”
Theatre, she thinks, is “a huge risk. It’s live, it’s happening before your very eyes. The only other thing that does that is sports…. Theatre and sports are so similar. You have a general idea of the outcome but it really is very different every time.”
Theatre is “passing a massive ball of energy around the stage for someone’s amusement…. When you have a really good play and a lovely team of creators, it’s as alive and exciting as a big game. And as unpredictable. Even after the pandemic, putting a show on for people is a kind of beautiful pressure.”
“If you believe that everyone is trying to be good but capable of massive mistakes, the best way to treat work is to make the characters as real as possible, real multi-faceted people as opposed to the scorned woman or the victim or the villain….”
And when they believe, audiences respond and buy in. “Humans have an incredible barometer for what is authentic, genuine, believable,” says Vacirca. “Even if it’s coming at us in a crazy shape we don’t recognize.”
Pride and Prejudice, adapted from the Jane Austen novel by Kate Hamill
Directed by: Mieko Ouchi
Starring: Gianna Vacirca, Karl Ang, Nadien Chu, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Garett Ross, Ben Elliott, Beth Graham, Morgan Yamada
Running: through April 2
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com