A LOVELY JANE AUSTIN ROM COM; THE BENNET SISTERS ARE BACK IN PERFECT PRIDE AND PREJUDICE FORM
‘MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY’ IS TWO YEARS LATER AS THE SISTERS MEET FOR THE HOLIDAY THEY IMPROVE THEIR GAME OF LOVE AND FINDING A GROOM FOR THEIR SISTER MARY.
Review by Vince Mediaa
The Bennet family is spending the Holidays at the High Street Stage in Alameda. They are inviting us to their seasonal celebration at the Altarena Playhouse and their estate at Pemberley. APH ends their celebrated 85th season of Bay Area Theatre with “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” now on stage only through November 19th. Written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, directed by Jacquie Duckworth who says this story is two years after we first meet the bickering Bennet sisters: “Our interest in the Bennet sisters endures because their struggles are our struggles as part of the human condition/ they live through Jane Austen’s witty dialogue and amusing treatment of human folly.”
This Bennet family Holiday story is a sequel to Austen’s classic “Pride and Prejudice.” Lauren Gunderson’s clever script once again showcases the Bennet sisters, this time spending Christmas together at Pemberley. This priceless rom com focuses on the awkward middle sister Mary Bennet as she finds love with Mr. Darcy’s equally awkward cousin, Lord Arthur de Bourgh. Mary Bennet, is approaching the years of spinsterhood, she accepts an invitation to spend Christmas with her happily married older sister, Elizabeth, and her husband Fitzwilliam Darcy at their estate at Pemberley. The Bennet’s sisters ' rivalry can only be compared to a 1800’s version of The Kardashian sisters. The happily married Elizabeth played by the impressive Sarah Jiang and Jane, played by the standout Devon DeGroot. The less-happily married Lydia, played by the sharp witted Zoe Novic who insults Mary all through the first act. The youngest sister, Kitty, is mentioned, but never makes an appearance – arriving with her parents (all offstage) in the final scene.
The terrific Samantha Rich plays Mary and she is surrounded by a vibrant cast. The polished Nico Jaochico is endearing as Mary's conveniently rich Lord Arthur De Bourgh, socially ill at ease love interest. Jaochico is perfect at bringing the balance of innocence and charm with an awkward brilliance. Arthur turns out to be a perfect match for Mary. Shy and socially awkward, Jaochico reminds me of a 1800’s Sheldon Cooper The Big Bang Theory. The confident Zoe Novic stands out as Mary's younger sister Lydia, easily a mean girl to drive home the lengths this sister goes to get what she wants, purely for amusement. This cast is authentic in their Regency era 1800’s British accents staying true to the dialect without a dialogue coach. Director Duckworth has a keen cast and has made the most of this diverse company. Gunderson's and Melcon's snappy dialogue, “Mistletoe is a parasitic plant it has quite a poisonous evergreen that causes flatulence and distress if consumed, romance will turn to vomit” says Authur as he avoids Lydia’s advances.
The chemistry between the couples is superb when Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, played by the admirable Joshua Roberts, discusses the odd Christmas tree in their drawing room. Elizabeth, the more modern of the sisters, brings a cut tree into the home well before Queen Victoria brought the German tradition to England; this becomes the running joke in the story. The skillful Thomas Hutchinson plays the dapper Charles Bingley and his wife Jane inspires a sense of sisterly affection that is crucial to the show’s success. The husbands embrace their roles, hiding behind manners and protocol, and dressed in stylish Regency attire. The villain of sorts Anne De Bourgh played by the powerful Mikki Johnson explodes into the first act and the sisters' games to claim she is Arthur's assumed fiance.
The play is best when it embraces its roots, with jokes and references to the original novel and film adaptations. You do not need to be an Austen fan or know anything about the source material and still enjoy this play, missed jokes and all. Mikki Johnson proves her fine acting skills as the annoying Anne an adds great drama to threaten Arthurs love for a Bennet sister. Mary and Arthur are a natural pair from the books they read Lamarck’s Zoological Philosophy , each a victim being socially inept that creates distance between themselves and the rest of the ensemble. It's Rich and Jaochico’s quiet chemistry that supports the two and captures the audience’s hope that the two may enjoy that mistletoe.
Alameda Theater is an intimate space that creates an immersive feel with most plays I have seen at the Altarena. The small elegant set makes up the Pemberley drawing room from four sides, no one feels truly distanced from the actors. The space dictates the coziness of designer Tom Curtin and Katina Psihos Letheule warm set. The costumes by Janice Stephenson convey a sense of elegance without upstaging the focus from the marvelous company. Sound designer Michael O’Brian light piano between scenes play’s easy, highlighting the characters’ silent moments. Mary does play the piano a few times, easily mixed by Tech Director Brian Grove.
Prop designer Susan Dunn kept the Pemberly drawing room gleaming with wine glasses, tea cups, a German holiday tree and all its enchanting ornaments. Alongside a classic library with gothic books well lit by lighting designer Kevin Myrick also highlighted Scenic Artist Elinoar Almagor excellent set dressing and furniture. Stage Manager Nikki Egget moved the nine member cast through all the four entrances at the Pemberley home. The shadow member of the cast is the ideal Charlotte Larson who plays the maid, who is constantly cleaning up after the families and serving drinks to the sisters and gentlemen.
MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY can be like a Hallmark Christmas film: amusing, heartwarming, romantic, and a bit predictable. Gunderson and Melcon stay true to Austen’s focus that marriage played in women’s lives at the time, while driving the story with a modern sensibility. Duckworths direction is fast paced and clever and Mary and Arthur could have a satisfying payoff. This play is funny, and warm-hearted. “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” is a worthwhile way to start your Holiday season. The Altarena has announced their 2024 86th season that you can access at their website listed below. But in the meantime come spend the Holidays with the Bennet sisters it's a lovely time with a flawless cast.
ALTARENA PLAYHOUSE PRESENTS
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
By Lauren Gunderson & Margot Melcon
Directed by Jacquie Duckworth
Artistic Director Katina Psihos Letheule
Must Close November 19th, 2023
Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St., Alameda
Running time: 2 hours with intermission,
Tickets $35 Adult, $33 Senior, $33 for Students
8pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets on sale now
Ticket Info: altarena.org
Photos by Altarena Playhouse
Devon deGroot, Thomas Hutchinson,
Nico Jaochico, Sarah Jiang,
Mikki Johnson, Zoe Novic,
Samantha Rich, Joshua Roberts,
and the Maid Charlotte Larson
Jacquie Duckworth - Director
Nikki Eggett - Stage Manager
Katina Psihos Letheule -
Artistic Director/Set Design/Costumes
Brian Grove - Technical Director
Tom Curtin - Set Design/Construction
Kevin Myrick - Lighting Designer
Michael O'Brien - Sound Designer
Janice Stephenson -
Susan Dunn - Property Designer