The curtain is already up when you walk in. There's a dance floor center stage, where most of the action will take place, and surrounding the dance floor are all the props, costumes, lamps, instruments, buckets of water, fans, and sound-effects machines that will be needed for the show.
The lights go down, and when they come back up, Mr. Bennet (Rajeev Varma) is sitting center stage, reading the newspaper. The newspaper he's reading is The Stranger.
The show is a madcap, postmodern, fourth-wall-breaking, Jane-Austen-joke-making take on Pride and Prejudice. It reminds the audience that Jane Austen's books were funny and full of emphatic inflection. In fact, a recent study of the vocabulary in Austen's writing revealed "a higher-than-average propensity for words like quite, really, and very—the sort that writers are urged to avoid if they want muscular prose." Researchers go on:
Austen used intensifying words — like very, much, so — at a higher rate than other writers. The study linked this intensifier use to a crucial trait of her writing, one that might at first seem to resist quantification: irony.
At Seattle Rep, playwright Kate Hamill and director Amanda Dehnert have found a hundred ways to dramatize Austen's intensities and ironies. Any restrictions about time and space, gender, or race have been thrown out the window. At the ball, everyone dances to Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke." The actor playing Mr. Bingley (Trick Danneker) comes out and takes a selfie with someone in the first row, and later plays the sappy Mr. Bingley as a puppy—literally, a simple-minded puppy excitedly chasing rubber balls. In alternate scenes, Danneker switches into a homely dress and plays the least lovely of the Bennet daughters.
The cast is top-notch, with Kjerstine Anderson bringing poise and poignancy to her portrayal of cynical, sure-of-herself Lizzy—who turns out to be wrong about herself in more ways than one. Emily Chisholm, who won a Stranger Genius Award in 2016, wrings more humor out of Jane than seems possible. Jane's boring. But the way Chisholm talks in the scene where Jane has a head cold is unforgettably funny—almost as funny as when Chisholm adopts an indecipherable E.T. squeak of a voice and wears a veil that fully obscures her face to play the bit part of Miss de Bourgh. "This character doesn't matter, except to move the plot along, her lines don't even matter," all of these choices say—an arch joke at Jane Austen's expense.
I have to confess: The first ten minutes of the show, I thought, "This is not working for me, I'll probably leave at intermission." I didn't get it. Mrs. Bennet (Cheyenne Casebier) was running around clanging a bell, I couldn't figure out what time period we were in, and it didn't seem funny to see a man in a dress. But then Brandon O'Neill made an entrance as Miss Bingley while RuPaul's "Supermodel" blared loudly—another man in a dress—and something started to turn for me. O'Neill, who plays three supporting roles, practically steals the show with his gift for slapstick. Halfway through act one, the production had won me over, and I was going, "Okay, Cheyenne Casebier's brilliant, Rajeev Varma's brilliant, Emily Chisholm's brilliant, Kjerstine Anderson's brilliant, Brandon O'Neill's brilliant..."
I expected the antics onstage to repel some of the audience members—I saw a Sunday matinee, so it was a sea of bluehairs—but the seats were packed after intermission. Everyone laughed louder during the second half. Kenajuan Bentley, who initially plays Mr. Darcy with a steely reserve, warms up by act two. His version of being seductive involves doing the worm on the dance floor. The energy and life and good humor of the actors is matched by clever scenic design by John McDermott, beautiful costumes by Tracy Christensen, and crisp sound design by Matt Starritt.
The show manages to be both utterly silly and unexpectedly profound. By curtain call, I was on my feet. They were playing Stevie Wonder again.