Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
For the unversed, Pemberley is the ancestral estate of Fitzwilliam Darcy, where he lives with his wife, the former Elizabeth (Lizzy) Bennet. Lizzy is the second of five Bennet sisters and the central character of "Pride and Prejudice." At the novel's end, Lizzy and Mr. Darcy are set to be wed, and Lizzy's older sister Jane has married well to the ever-congenial Mr. Bingley. Their youngest sister Lydia has run off with a caddish military officer, George Wickham, but Wickham agrees, under duress, to marry the fifteen-year-old girl and spare the family from disgrace. The fates of the two other Bennet sisters, Mary and Kitty, are far less certain. Mary is depicted as plain, bookish, pedantic, and unlikely to find romance. Kitty, though older than Lydia, lives in thrall of Lydia's unchecked thirst to experience life.
The first play in the "Christmas at Pemberley" trilogy, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, brings Mary to the fore, and introduces a character who is her ideal match, so that as Georgiana and Kitty begins, she is engaged to Arthur De Burgh. The second of the plays, The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, addresses the unsuitable marriage between Lydia and George Wickham. The conceit of those two plays is that they take place on the same Christmas, two years after the novel's end, the former set on the main floor of the gracious Pemberley house, and the latter occurring downstairs, in the servants' work quarters.
The focus is now on Kitty who, away from Lydia's shadow, has come into her own as a vibrant young woman living in London, and especially on Georgiana, Mr. Darcy's younger sister to whom he has been guardian since their parents' deaths. His over-protectiveness has kept Georgiana from having a life of her own. She too has moved to London where she pursues her interest in music (she was introduced in "Pride and Prejudice" as an accomplished pianist at a young age). In London, she and Kitty have become best of friends, as close as sisters, and they support one another in every endeavor.
After giving a piano recital, Georgiana acquires an ardent admirer, Henry Clay, who was in the audience. After corresponding for nearly a year, Georgiana invites Henry to Pemberley for Christmas with her family. He accepts and asks to bring a friend along as his travel companion, a Thomas O'Brien. This news is not at all welcomed by Mr. Darcy, who is extremely suspicious of a man in pursuit of his sister without having first passed muster with him. It doesn't help that Henry arrives tongue-tied, with an extreme case of nerves. Thomas employs his wit and social ease in an effort to draw Henry out, catching Kitty's eye in the process. Darcy's hostility and interference from Lydia, who, having lost Kitty's adoration, seeks ways to draw attention to herself, leave little hope of a happy future for Georgiana and Henry. But hang on, that's just the first act. Act II takes place six years later, rife with new possibilities. In the process, Georgiana discovers, and shares with others, a great deal about the power residing within women, just waiting to be released. Remember, this is 1815.
Gunderson and Melcon have crafted dialogue and devised situations that are extravagantly funny. The language makes use of droll understatement that creates a very British kind of humor, but there is also a great deal of physical comedy. Adelin Phelps, as Lydia, is hilarious in her desperation to be the center of attention, and Dustin Bronson a Henry Grey is equally so in his characterization of a sweet young man overwhelmed by shyness. There are many other wonderful comic touches, such as the choreographed use of folding fans by the woman, that make this show sparkle from start to finish.
Marisa B. Tejeda, who plays Georgiana, hails from Minnesota and was seen in several ensemble roles here before relocating to Chicago, where she is now based. What good fortune for us to have her return, and in a central role where she can't be missed. Her characterization of Georgiana as a woman who travels from being totally sheltered to speaking aloud about a woman's place as an equal to men in the public sphere is completely believable. All the emotions she presents–affection, enthusiasm, anger, fear, humiliation, empowerment–are authentic. Let's hope Tejeda decides to visit her home turf more often. It is key, too, that she and Becca Hart, as Kitty, have a chemistry that makes their characters' close friendship feel genuine. There is no doubt about the bonds of affection they share. Hart is also a force of her own, as Kitty steps up to meet Tom O'Brien (played by an extremely likable Tom Reed) on the playing field of flirtation and later takes charge of Georgiana's campaign.
Sun Mee Chomet and James Rodriguez have played Lizzy Bennet Darcy and Fitzwilliam Darcy, respectively, in all three of the "Christmas at Pemberley," plays, and they have established a rapport that makes the Darcys' relationship a joy to watch, with a balance between pointedly bickering–for both are headstrong, as we learned way back in "Pride and Prejudice"–and utter delight in one another's presence. Shae Palic as Jane and Vinecia Coleman as Mary do assured work recreating the personas of those sisters–Jane, unerringly kind and patient, Mary bookish and barbed–but their characters are given less to do than the others. Still, with Hart, Phelps and Chomet, they function wonderfully as an ensemble to create a delightful maelstrom of noise and affection whenever the five sisters are together.
How have I gone this long without mentioning Sarah Bahr's beautifully rendered settings? The drawing room at Pemberley for Act I is complete with that newfangled decorative touch Lizzy has insisted upon, all the rage in Germany: a Christmas tree. And for Act II, the drawing room is being set up for a recital in Georgiana's London home. Bahr also designed the elaborate period costumes, with attention to each's character's interest in fashion and verve plenty for Lydia, next to none for Mary. Marcus Dilliard's lighting and C. Andrew Mayer's sound designs contribute further to an excellent physical production, as one has come to expect at the Jungle.
It is not clear exactly when the first act of Georgiana & Kitty takes place. It may be the same year as the first two "Christmas at Pemberley" plays, as Lydia mentions confronting her husband below stairs, or perhaps it is the following year, as Mary's fiancé Arthur, very much present in Miss Bennet, is now gone on a scientific expedition and therefore absent. The Bennet elders, mother and father to that bevy of daughters, were set to arrive, along with Kitty, just as Miss Bennet ends, but they are nowhere seen nor, apparently, expected to appear. It makes no difference, really, as either way, Georgiana and Kitty is a delight from start to finish. Oh yes, an adorable dog makes an appearance too, just in case anyone in the audience has not already been completely won over.
All remaining performances are sold out, but Jungle has already brought back Miss Bennet for an encore performance, so we can hope that they will see fit to bring back Georgiana and Kitty, and The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley as well in a rotation as a continuing gift to theater lovers and Austen lovers alike.
Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley runs through December 23, 2022, at at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. All remaining performances are sold out. Contact the theater for cancellations at 612-822-7073 For more information, please visit www.jungletheater.com.
Playwrights: Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon; Directors: Christina Baldwin and Angela Timberman; Set and Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Props Design: John Novak; Wig & Makeup Design: Tracy Swenson and Lex Patton; Dramaturg: Sequoia Hauck; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Music Arrangements/Violinist: Emilia Mettenbrink; Stage Manager and Properties: John Novak; Assistant Director: Roshni Desai; Technical Director: Jared Shofstall; Production Manager: Matthew Earley; Stage Manager: John Novak.
Cast: Dustin Bronson (Henry Grey), Sun Mee Chomet (Elizabeth Darcy), Vinecia Coleman (Mary Benet), Becca Hart (Kitty Bennet), Shae Palic (Jane Bingley), Adelin Phelps (Lydia Wickham), Tom Reed (Thomas O'Brien), James Rodriguez (Fitzwilliam Darcy), Marisa B. Tejeda (Georgiana Darcy).