Pride and Prejudice
Book-It at On the Boards, 100 W Roy St, 325-6500. Thurs-Sat at 7:30, Sun at 2; $18, $14 students/seniors, group rates available. Through Sept 24.

IN 1797, THE BRIGHT, odd, 22-year-old Jane Austen read out loud to her family, over the course of what we can only imagine were several long weeks, her three-volume novel called First Impressions. Reading aloud to one another was a common way for cultivated families to spend their candlelit evenings together. Jane's father was so impressed with his daughter's literary effort that he offered to send the manuscript to a publisher friend, Mr. Cadell, and pay for its publication. Mr. Austen's so-called friend replied hastily that not only would he not publish the thing--he wouldn't even read it. Cadell, we trust, is spending eternity being burnt to bacon crisp in the vast and vile circle of hell reserved for insensitive publishers. However, his snootiness and his publishing company's ensuing failure became, a few years later, literature's gain. In 1811, after Sense and Sensibility had been accepted for publication by someone wiser, Jane Austen returned to First Impressions and recast it into what became one of the great novels of world literature, Pride and Prejudice.

Book-It's choice to start their 11th season with this world premiere adaptation is a smart one. British director Marcus Goodwin's staging is lively and crisp, and though the second act could use some cutting, mostly the play really clipped along. With minimal sets and props, this production, as is typical with Book-It, emphasizes the writer's craft--in this case, Austen's ability to write a beautiful, smart paragraph and see through the most ridiculous of 19th-century social pretensions.

Before the stage lights come all the way up, the entire cast of 15 lines the front of the stage and chatters simultaneously. This is a story about the power of talk: It matters less what you feel or think than how you speak. The group chatter winds down, leaving Jennifer Sue Johnson as Elizabeth Bennet and Andrew De Rycke as Mr. Darcy, dividing between them the biting opening line of the book: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." The society Austen critiques is not one in which there's a lot of elbow room to move romantically. It's a society in which choices we consider personal today--who you'll marry, if you'll marry--are prescribed, or as the title indicates, prejudged. The trick is to retain some modicum of self and get what you want without being utterly ostracized because of your difference.

Mrs. Bennet, whose business in life is to get her daughters married, is played by Laura Ferri as a shrill, mildly desperate busybody, a woman who knows that the only desirable fate for a proper middle-class English girl is marriage. Her two dizzy youngest daughters, played by Rhonda Soikowski and Heather Guiles, follow her around like little ducks. They skitter and squawk and represent all the fluffy, airheaded female stuff the dour Mr. Darcy (he's the Pride of the title) wants nothing to do with. The second eldest daughter, Elizabeth, however, is a smart, independent young woman. Though she has a grudging respect for the polite rules of her society, she's not about to put her brains under a bushel in order to catch a man. Instead, she matches wits with Darcy; they hate each other, they spar, they fall for each other, they finally end up together. If this plot sounds cliché, it's because every romance writer since Austen has been copying her plots and characters--unfortunately without approaching Austen's insight or dialogue.

Book-It gets how ruthlessly funny Austen is. Jim Gall delivers wry Mr. Bennet's lines while glancing down over the top of his glasses. Beth Peterson renders the irritating neighbor, Mrs. Hurst, as stupendously nasal. Darcy is beautifully consistent as a cheerless guy with a stick up his rear (until, of course, he falls in love with Elizabeth). But the most memorable comic performance is Martin Buchanan's unctuous clergyman, Mr. Collins. The way Buchanan oils around the stage makes you want to just cringe. Though his interpretation seems more of a Dickens-like caricature, I bet Austen would have gotten a huge kick out of his showmanship anyway.

Though some of the cast really mangled their English accents, nobody was awful. Overall, this light, lively production does a terrific honor to both Austen as writer and Book-It as interpreters.

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