The screwball elixir: high spirits and rom-com gold. Pride and Prejudice at the Citadel, a review

Morgan Yamada, Ben Elliott, Nadien Chu, Garett Ross, Beth Graham, Gianna Vacirca in Pride and Prejudice, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

By Liz Nicholls,

Dust off the Regency, and what will you find? Fun fun fun, my friends. 

It is a measure of the comic high spirits of the version of Pride and Prejudice currently cavorting its way up, down, and across the Citadel’s Maclab stage (and slamming the odd door too), that the single word “single” is a show-stopper every time it’s spoken.  

That, my friends, is stakes. And it’s rom-com gold, or at least fab bling. If “single” is applied to a man, red flag: it incites chaos all around him; as applied to a woman, it’s a catastrophe in search of an intervention. As per the first line of Jane Austen’s evergreen 1813 novel, wearing its 210 years lightly in this 2017 adaptation by the American actor Kate Hamill, “it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

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Director Mieko Ouchi and a dexterous cast of eight make a frantic screwball comedy of it. And I have to admit to some doubts going in, since making a farce from what is already a sparkling comedy is a tricky business. But in the process,  Ouchi’s smart production has its cake and eats it too: a very modern sense of unravelling romantic comedy chaos, heartbreak and triumph … that comes with all the Georgian trimmings, so there’s fun to be had in the juxtaposition. There’s a classically symmetrical two-tiered two-staircase set (by Scott Reid), lighted in ice cream colours by Kevin Humphrey, and a cast dressed to kill in Deanna Finnman’s lavish, imaginatively tweaked Regency gear. No obvious jukebox jokes here: there’s a spinet (a pianoforte?) and period music.

And I’m here to report that it’s a riotous concoction. The audience cheered, and gasped at setbacks, groaned at obstacles, enjoyed the gender-bending of dexterous actors. And laughed, a lot and out loud, me included. The way people talk over each other might be enough to give a die-hard Jane-ite the vapours but this is a rollicking night out, amongst comic characters who are blind to their folly, to a variety of degrees. In fact, the show begins with a game of blind-man’s bluff. 

In a wonderfully judged comic performance by Gianna Vacirca, Elizabeth Bennet leads proceedings as both wry, amused, oft exasperated observer and a slightly reluctant, increasingly dizzy, participant. Along with her dad Mr. Bennet (played by Garett Ross with the amusingly beleaguered air of a man trapped in an out-of-control female merry-go-round), Lizzie is the most sensible young person in the room. Till she’s not. 

This is, after all, a romantic comedy. And Lizzie will meet a mysterious man, aloof, smart and arrogant Mr. Darcy (played with stand-offish gravitas by Karl Ang), who’s as prickly, romance-averse, and primed for a comeuppance as she is. He is “the last man in the world on whom I could ever be prevailed to marry.” And by the velvet-gloved but iron-clad terms of the inevitable rom-com resolution we’re all hoping for, her declaration that she’ll never marry because marriage is “fundamentally flawed” will turn out to be hollow. By the end she has to admit that “till this moment I never knew myself.”

Lizzie and Mr. Darcy (plus Mr. Bennet trying unsuccessfully to hide behind the print medium, possibly a cautionary tale for newspapers) are surrounded by comic grotesques. The general in charge of the Bennet household, with its plethora of marriageable daughters, is the raging motormouth Mrs. Bennet, her dander (and her volume) perpetually up in Nadien Chu’s fearlessly outsized, self-dramatizing performance. She’s funny, but it will cross your mind, from time to time, to fantasize about throwing one of the production’s rugs over her and nailing the corners down. 

Mrs. Bennet’s appointed task in life is to see her daughters advantageously hitched to real estate and annual incomes that are by necessity attached to men, worthy or not. And the arrival of a rich, eligible bachelor and his sister next door, Mr. and Miss Bingley, is the occasion of much maternal rejoicing. A campaign begins; it’s party time!. The general tone of the adaptation? Mrs. Bennet shrieks “Balls balls balls! I can’t get enough of them.”

Gianna Vacirca and Ben Elliott in Pride and Prejudice, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

Lizzie’s sister Jane, sweetly played by Morgan Yamada, falls hard for Mr. Bingley, and vice versa, much to her mother’s glee. In Ben Elliott’s amusing performance, Mr. Bingley is an amiable ninny, panting, pawing the ground, as eager to please as a puppy (his friend Darcy does toss him a ball). You feel perhaps he’s had an alternate life as a street performer. Elliott as Mary, the solemn bookish sister who doesn’t get much ink in Austen, is the show’s funniest running sight gag, which occasions a succession of ingenious costume changes. She’s a lugubrious lodgepole who pops up unexpectedly everywhere — high dudgeon made flesh — scaring her sisters, and airing her sibling grievances and a grim sense of the disaster-bound world.

The double-casting of Mr. Bennet and Lizzie’s earnest best friend Charlotte (“my parents have no money, and the clock is ticking”) is the production’s quietest pairing. And Ross is affecting in both roles, improbably exiting as one and simultaneously entering as the other. To Charlotte belongs the hard-headed Austen insight that society runs on real estate, income, and the vulnerability of women.  

The youngest Bennet sister Lydia, a dippy little nitwit in the novel — she elopes with the blackguard Wickem — gets a highly original comic turn from Beth Graham, who doubles as the snooty aristocrat Lady Catherine. In a strikingly physical performance Graham plays Lydia as a loose-limbed marionette of a naif, unhinged in body and mind, always on the wrong foot, flopping into chairs as if her bones had given way. Marriage stiffens her spine, physically; so does her accusation that she’s just been following the advice she’s been given that marriage is a game to be won at all costs.  

Braydon Dowler-Coltman and Ben Elliott as Miss and Mr. Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Nanc Price.

The production’s busiest actor is Braydon Dowler-Coltman, who re-defines triple-threat. He’s the snobbish Miss Bingley, a tippler in a looped wig that’s a veritable comic prop in itself. He’s Mr. Wickham, the alluring military man, who swaggers his way effortlessly, a double-entendre on legs, into the Bennet household (“can I touch your musket?” asks Lydia). And in a virtuoso turn, he’s Mr. Collins the cleric, a rubber-legged narcissist in perpetual pursuit of the right word. His courtship method is a veritable physical comedy in itself. Kudos to movement director Ainsley Hillyard. 

“It’s all so ridiculous,” declares Lizzie, disconcerted by the dislodging of her own prejudice, an “immoveable dislike” for Mr. Darcy. Can two people make a go of it as a couple, when one of them has chosen to be amused by the world and the other has firmly declared that he “does not enjoy being an object of fun?” When all other resolution seems too fraught and verbally inaccessible, even in a particularly articulate age,  there’s … dance. 

And that’s where a delightful evening ends.


Pride and Prejudice, adapted from the Jane Austen novel by Kate Hamill

Theatre: Citadel

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,

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