Saturday, October 27, 2018

Pride and Prejudice Play Review

Pride and Prejudice

by Kate Hamill, adapted from the novel by Jane Austen; directed by Birgitta Victorson

Note: I'm deliberately withholding the name of the city, the theater company and the actors to protect my privacy from SPAMbots and other unsavory internet people. If you're reading this, I'm providing enough details for you to look it up.

While I enjoyed this funny, romantic romp, it wasn't really Jane Austen's story. It's sort of Baz Luhrmann does Jane Austen and Henry Fielding with social commentary. There are some contemporary music segments and a lot of bawdy jokes. You'll never hear the word ball again without giggling like Lydia Bennet. 

This is a story about four sisters: pretty, sweet Jane; not pretty, witty, anti-marriage Lizzie, ugly, bird-loving Mary and man crazy, wild child Lydia. Kitty is represented through Mary coughing and moaning. The only other sibling to appear in this production is Caroline Bingley. Louisa Hurst is cut out and never mentioned, as is Mrs. Phillips and the Gardiners but Georgiana Darcy is mentioned although she is never seen. There are several other changes to the story, especially in Act 2. 

Sometimes the modern music segments worked, such as when Caroline Bingley stepped out on stage doing "the Vogue." I can see her in her mind thinking "Oh yeah! I'm a superstar in this hick town!" It didn't work when the Bennet sisters turn into seedy nightclub dancers a la the movie Showgirls. I wasn't crazy about the Journey music used to heighten the romantic tension at the end but the audience seemed to love it. 

I loved it best when the actors spoke Jane Austen's words or close to them. Sometimes the line began with Jane's words "Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections?" was changed to family instead of connections.  The playwright also included one of my favorite Mr. Bennet quips “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.” However, most of the words were not Jane's and many of the best lines were cut out, including Mr. Darcy's speech about being brought up in pride and conceit.

The Meryton Assembly was more of a disaster than the Netherfield Ball. Lydia consumes too much rum punch and behaves badly and Mama Bennet is embarrassing to the extreme. The Bennets are more overtly fortune hunters in this production, even Lizzie. Lizzie states that someone must save the family and it should be Jane because she's so pretty and sweet that someone (Bingley) will fall in love with her. Bingley is portrayed as an ignorant puppy without many thoughts in his head. He sees Jane and it's love at first sight. Lizzie and Darcy's "meet cute" is SUPER awkward by anyone's standards and he handled it badly, leading to the rest of the misunderstandings. Darcy does explain his feelings to Bingley and explains why he needs to leave the Assembly ASAP! 

One scene I found especially funny was Lizzie's rejection of Mr. Collins. She yells at him, literally runs away and her pursues her around the stage, into the theater, around the audience. She manages to run ahead down into the seats and back on stage where she hides behind the sofa. Collins can't take a hint without Lizzie yelling at him. 

I appreciated that the playwright added in a lot of the social context. Right away the actors come out and explain, not yet in character, the type of society the characters live in, where there aren't many opportunities for women and women are expected to marry and marry up. At the Netherfield Ball, Lizzie and Darcy have a wonderful conversation (they never would have been able to speak like that at a ball) about their outlooks on life and expectations. Lizzie knows very little of her own life is out of her control, so she just laughs at herself and circumstances. Darcy is very proud. He doesn't know how to laugh at himself or see the absurdity in a situation. Lizzie refers to marriage as a game and Charlotte adds her thoughts about lack of prospects and putting oneself more forward to catch a man, as she does in the book. Sadly, Lizzie's remarks about marriage being a game are taken literally by Lydia and she "wins the prize" in Wickham without understand what it is she has done to her reputation and her sisters' reputations. I think this was a nice addition considering the context of the novel sometimes gets lost in adaptations and students and people reading the novel for the first time don't really understand the social structure of 19th-century English society. 

In the second act, the original novel gets lost in order to condense time and utilize only 8 actors. Lizzie goes to Kent to visit Charlotte who is making the best of her marriage to Collins. Charlotte is played by the same actor who portrays Mr. Bennet. This dual role didn't quite take me in. Yes Charlotte is plain but here she's has an unattractive, old man face and is very tall. The actor is able to sincerely deliver Charlotte's lines and almost make me believe he is a spinster turned housewife. Then the story goes all wrong. Darcy becomes extremely impassioned. I didn't like the change to the story. He tells her right away of Wickham's misdeeds and why he took Bingley away. He apologizes for that but also insults her family. Lizzie yells and yells at him, even after knowing that he had good intentions for doing what he did. She isn't sure who is telling the truth- Wickham or Darcy. She doesn't want to marry and certainly not Darcy! He takes off unhappily and Lizzie confides in Charlotte. 

A week later Lizzie is accompanying the Collinses, Lady Catherine and Anne to Pemberley where she has an awkward meeting alone with Lady Catherine who proceeds to insult her. Then Darcy shows up unexpectedly and is bashful yet kind. Before they can become friends, news of Lydia's elopement reaches Derbyshire and Lizzie must return home. I love the Pemberley section of the novel. It shows Mr. Darcy changes for Lizzie and how sweet he is to his sister. His home and his behavior show Lizzie what kind of man he is. This can't happen in a week! Lizzie needs time to process what she learns and Darcy needs time to let Lizzie's words sink in and see what kind of friend to Georgiana Lizzie will be. Part of the charm of this story is the getting to know each other better. 

Another minor change is back at Longbourn where there's no sign of Lydia. A big change comes when Mr. Bennet is having an attack of nerves and Mrs. Bennet is there to support him and care for him. She gets silly again when Lydia returns, triumphantly married with her Wickham. She accidentally reveals what Mr. Darcy did for them but it's too late and Mr. Bennet kicks Wickham out of the house. I didn't get a good sense of Wickham's character in this novel. He laughs with Lizzie over her crazy family and then runs off with Lydia at the end. He becomes more forceful with Lydia and I believe she isn't happy with what she thought she wanted. 

The ending is so wrong. If you like the Keira Knightley movie then you may enjoy this but I like it as written, with Mr. Darcy explaining his behavior and not acting like a lovesick fool. There is lots of commentary here on the roles of women and marriage. Lizzie is still confused. How do you know what will make a successful marriage? You don't. You trust that your partner loves you and you love him. 

I felt very sorry for Mary in the end. She's the forgotten, awkward sibling, always fighting with Lydia. She has only her pet bird to love because no one else loves her. Mary's story made me sad.

Having only 8 actors works surprisingly well. It took me awhile to catch on that Mary was also Mr. Bingley! Remove the dress, add a silly wig and the actress was transformed! I especially LOVED the actor portraying Caroline Bingley and Mr. Collins. Yes- actor. I recognized his name as a long time member of the company and dreadful English accent aside, he was magnificent. Caroline struts, she flutters her fan, she flirts and she makes catty comments while sashaying around the stage. Mr. Collins is extremely foppish and foolish. He has some kind of strange speech pattern- drawing out his words and adding odd noises, making him seem extra silly. As the actor has to quick change, he doesn't have time to remove his Caroline makeup, making Collins extra foppish. Another stand out is the actress playing Lydia and Lady Catherine. Lydia is energetic, silly and fights with Mary. Lydia loves balls and is eager to have them (take that as a double entendre). She's a more energetic, wild and free version of her original novel self. Lady Catherine is appropriately haughty, carries a walking stick cum parasol and is just like you expect her to be. It was amazing to see such a transformation from one character to the next and back again! I wasn't crazy about a woman playing Mr. Darcy. Not that she didn't act the part well, just that it was hard to imagine a petite woman as tall, dark Mr. Darcy. We all have our own image of Mr. Darcy in our heads so just because this Mr. Darcy wasn't MY Mr. Darcy doesn't mean she isn't Mr. Darcy.

The costumes are by and large excellent. The costume designer, Olivera Gajic, researched period stays (corset) and each actress had a different type depending on their needs. One had long stays, one had stays that tied in front (possibly a bodied petticoat) and another had short stays. The women did wear drawers but well, modern women aren't used to wearing nothing down there and there is a lot of physical activity in the show. The day dresses on Lizzie and Jane looked pretty good. The prints looked about right for the 1813 date and the style of dresses on Lizzie, Jane and Mary looked about right. There were minor details that were off-like lace and cameo style brooches. Lydia's purple checked day dress was made from downright hideous modern synthetic material that no doubt looked better to the back row of the audience than it did to me in the front row. The costumes suited the characters' personalities. My personal favorite is Mrs. Bennet's wedding cake hat!

My seat was in front on the side of the stage so I got a full view of... the sofa, the punch bowl, backstage costume quick change area and the backs of the actors so at times it was hard to see their faces and facial expressions but not always and I could hear them loudly enough to know what was happening and what the characters are thinking and feeling.

I enjoyed the show well enough but I've seen other funny Pride and Prejudice adaptations that were not so bawdy and not so noisy. It's worth the experience to see the show in a different light but Janeites go into it without expectations in order to enjoy the show more.

Pride and Prejudice Play Review Prologue

Pride and Prejudice

by Kate Hamill, adapted from the novel by Jane Austen; directed by Birgitta Victorson

I had the pleasure of seeing this play performed at a local theater this fall. I attended a pre-show prologue about the show, hosted by the actress who portrays Jane Bennet and Anne de Bourgh. 

This show is a loose adaptation by Kate Hamill. It is a show by women, about women and (mostly) performed by women in order to create more roles for women in the theater. It is also an attempt to reclaim the classics for everyone.

The director of this production, Birgitta Victorson, is also a choreographer, educator and deviser so there is quite a lot of movement in this production. The cast rehearsed by playing childhood games, like balls. (Balls is used a lot in the show in more than one meaning). Some made it into the show and others did not. One that did is "over, under, around and through" and it was fun to catch the games in the show. The director also says "This is not your mother's Pride and Prejudice" and brought a lot of her own past to the show. There's a feeling of first love, that Junior High dance waiting to be picked. This is devised theater, it allows for many points-of-view, making the story their own. 

The cast was encouraged to bring in songs that were meaningful to them (contemporary 20th-century music) and some were worked into the show. 

Some words stressed are "affection," "perfection," "appropriate," "pride" and "prejudice". 

Some questions to think about:
What does it mean to cast characters of different genders than what you imagine them to be?

How does the society feel contemporary? different? Hint: They move differently. There are many dances in 1813 with arms over their heads. When the costumes didn't allow for that, they had to add more fabric under the arms to extend their reach.

Who gets what they deserve?
Who is happy with what they thought they wanted?

Before I begin my review, I will note this review contains spoilers so move on to the next post if you want to know or stop here if you don't want to know. If you're a die-hard literary snob, don't see this production!!! If you've only seen the "Keira Knightley" movie version or read a Wiki summary or Gif review online, give it a try but know that this isn't Jane Austen. It's a funny romp with some social commentary! The second act departs a lot from the original story. Read on for the full spoilerish review!

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Little Women on Masterpiece

Little Women on Masterpiece

This is a review of the recent small screen mini-series adaptation of Little Women starring Maya Hawke (daughter of one of my teen crushes Ethan Hawke-how can that be?!) as Jo, Willa Fitzgerald as Meg, Kathryn Newton as Amy, Annes Elwy as Beth, Jonah Hauer-King as Laurie, Emily Watson as Marmee, Dylan Baker as Father March. Also starring Angela Lansbury as Aunt March and Michael Gambon as Mr. Laurence

This wasn't a BAD production, it just wasn't quite as faithful a narrative as I had hoped. The cinematography was beautiful- almost too beautiful at times. The light shining in on Beth during her death scene was just way too annoyingly obvious. The scene is emotional enough to understand without being hit on the head. The sets are nice but not what I expected. Orchard House looks hardly anything like Orchard House. In fact the Alcotts lived at The Wayside, next door, when the story takes place so I'll give them a pass. The scenery is very pretty but not New England. It looks too stylized and computerized. 19th-century Concord looks nothing like real Concord. I know Concord better than I know my hometown and I know there are many 19th-century buildings still standing on Main Street and the center of town that are easily identifiable. I wanted to walk with Jo down streets I know well and see buildings I know. I suppose that's a minor quibble no one but a local would complain about. 

One MAJOR MAJOR MAJOR historical error occurs near the end. Jo refers to the editor of Godey's Lady's Book as a HE. The editor was still Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman responsible for "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and Thanksgiving. I'm positive Jo would know that! How could she not admire a career woman and a fellow writer even if Hale was a widow? Also under the historical accuracy note: The costumes are lovely but maybe a bit off here and there in the collar, necklines and droop of the shoulders. Perhaps on purpose to show the March family isn't wealthy because the more expensive clothing is well done. Amy on the balcony in France looks like she stepped out of Renoir's famous painting! I thought there was just a wee but too much of the unmentionables showing. Concord society would be horrified. As a historian though I DID really appreciate the costume designer showing off that period correct underwear. It looked well-done so why not show modern people what women had to wear? It sets the stage for the reform dress movement that Louisa writes about in Rose in Bloom. 

What this production did differently that I did enjoy was set the story in the correct setting. It's set during the Civil War and the famous scene with Marmee reading Father's letter to the "little women" shows Mr. March off at war. It's incorrect that he's administering to a member of the U.S. Colored Troops at this time and historians are sure to call that blunder but I liked the juxtaposition of the cozy homefront and the reality of the war. It makes Father's letter that much more poignant. I also loved the scene when John Brooke marches away to war and the Marches are standing around the piano singing a lovely ballad. That was very effective in conveying the feelings of watching a loved one go off possibly never to return. 

The acting was so-so. Emily Watson was great as Marmee, trying to hold her family together in difficult times. She's not saintly and perfect. She's a real woman trying to raise four adolescent girls alone and sometimes her temper frays and pops out a bit. She's very loving and kind though but some of her guidance is lacking. Her emotion when she learned Beth's secret was heartbreaking. I also liked Dylan Baker as Father. Father March is witty and a bit sarcastic. I chuckled at a few of his lines. He's kind and loving but not too indulgent. Marmee is still the main parent in this production. Mr. March mainly appears at the end of the novel (In Good Wives) and that part of the story was so rushed the actor barely got a chance to develop the character. The sisters had good chemistry. Their acting talents vary widely. Kathryn Newton was excellent as Amy. She was exactly how I imagine Amy-spoiled, snobby, selfish and wanting to be older than she is. Some may argue that she doesn't look 12 but I've seen 12 year old girls that look full grown and adults who look 12. The actresses not appearing in age order didn't bother me. My younger sister and younger cousin both look older than me. 

The weak links were sadly Maya Hawke as Jo and Jonah Hauer-King as Laurie. Maya just didn't have enough punch to be a correct Jo. Much of this was due to the limited material. I didn't buy her as a 19th-century young woman struggling to hold on to her childhood in order to resist change, including the gender norms of the day. Maya's Jo is free spirited and wild but I don't think Maya's delivery really conveyed that. She does have great chemistry with Jonah though. Jo and Laurie remind me so much of Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe that it makes me wonder how much Lucy Maud Montgomery was inspired by and disappointed in Little Women! Laurie was absolutely dreadful. His line delivery is wooden, his accent changes and he's not the fun, playful boy who becomes the March boy. His romance with Amy is made sweet and romantic to be believable for a modern audience who knows the only reason he married Amy is because she was the only available March sister. Amy marries him for comfort and security and they understand each other's superficiality. This production cuts out the reasons for them getting together-he gives her a hard time about her flirting too much in Europe and she gives him a hard time about being lazy. He runs off to work hard to be worthy of her. This was all glossed over in favor of a sweet little romance. 

The other two sisters were nice. I liked sweet Meg and gentle Beth but I don't think Beth's kindness or unselfishness was really fully conveyed. It's so hard to judge acting when the script is lacking. I think both young actresses did a fine job.

Angela Lansbury is one of the finest English/American actresses ever and she shines here as Aunt March. This is the first time I've seen the similarities between Aunt March and her namesake Jo! They're both stubborn and feisty, independent women in their own ways. The pet parrot is hysterical! Michael Gambon doesn't have much to do here. My favorite role of his was in Elizabeth Gaskell's "Wives and Daughters" and here Mr. Laurence is a very similar character to Squire Hamley. His stubborn pride nearly costs him his family. It takes the warmth and kindness of the March family to thaw old Mr. Laurence and show he has a heart after all. I didn't agree with the choice to not bring up Laurie's backstory and how Mr. Laurence became estranged from his only child. (See also "Wives and Daughters" on how NOT to be a parent of a stubborn adult child). is nice as Professor Baher. He looks too young to be the old man all readers make him out to be but I doubt Professor Baher actually is old-he just seems to be. 

The story cut out too many important bits. It focused on the sisters and their relationship with a little bit of emphasis on how Marmee raised her girls. While Marmee is shown giving books to the girls for Christmas, Pilgrim's Progress is cut out. I probably would have removed that too for a modern audience but it serves to showcase the March family values. Another important scene that is left out is when the girls prepare a Christmas surprise for Marmee. One other bit that I wish was left in to show the March family's beliefs is when the girls are left alone to play housekeeping and Jo makes a huge mess. I did like how Marmee has to explain to Jo how she keeps her temper. That's also important. More fun parts that were removed include Jo's play the girls perform at Christmas. This is so much fun and shows the personalities of the sisters very well and foreshadows the "blood and thunder" tales Jo will later write. The Pickwick Club was also cut out. Again this shows the reader the girls' personalities and introduces Laurie as one of them. The ending was way too rushed. I also didn't care for the modern sounding background music.

Final verdict: This was too slow to be appealing to younger viewers and cut out too many important parts but is overall enjoyable enough. 3 out of 5 stars *** 

Photos taken from The Internet Movie Database. Copyright belongs to PBS and BBC.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenge 2018

Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenge

Hosted by In the Bookcase

Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge

1. Daniel on the Run: Louisa, Will and the Underground Railroad (bottom) by Claiborne Dawes; illustrated by J. Stephen Moyer
2. Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau's Flute by Junie Dunlap & Marybeth Lorbiecki; illustrated by Mary Azarian (middle)
3. Norna Or, the Witch's Curse by Louisa May Alcott, edited by Juliet McMaster for Juvenilia Press (top)

Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenge Reviews

Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge

Norna Or, the Witch's Curse by Louisa May Alcott; edited by Juliet McMaster for Juvenilia Press

This is the play that "Jo" wrote. The March sisters perform a similar play at Christmas in the early pages of Little Women. In 1848 Louisa and her sister Anna collaborated to compose this bloodthirsty tale of yore about a wicked villain who stops at nothing to attempt the win the woman whose fortune he covets. A kindly witch steers the action in the right direction with her vengeful curse! The editors' notes explain when this was written, the history of publication (Anna Alcott Pratt oversaw the original publication as a companion to Little Women and the original manuscript is now missing). The textual notes explain the archaic language and the influences of Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens and the other writers Louisa and Anna enjoyed. While Louisa liked the villains and heroes, Anna preferred the romantic bits and leading lady role.

This play was considered shocking at the time. It's very much over the top and bloody. The villain is absolutely wicked and remorseless. The hero is noble and kind and the heroine not too overly sweet and good. She knows her own mind and isn't too proud to show it. I can't say I liked the play. I'm too old for that kind of nonsense but as Anne Shirley would probably have loved it, I would have too in my youth. The student drawn illustrations are comical and add to the absurdity of the play. 

I recommend reading this play to see how Jo/Louisa's writing developed and if you're curious about that play in Little Women. It's a great addition to my library! Thank you to Juliet McMaster for providing me with the advance release flyer at the Jane Austen Society of North America Annual General Meeting in 2016. 

Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau's Flute by Julie Dunlap & Marybeth Lorbiecki; illustrated by Mary Azarian--picture book/early readers

In Concord, Massachusetts seven-year-old Louisa May Alcott is not quiet and obedient like her sisters. Her father tries and tries to teach her to be quiet, obey her parents and follow the rules. Louisa would rather jump from hay lofts and be wild and free outdoors. When she learns a neighbor, Mr. Thoreau, is leading the children on an outing to pick berries, Louisa begs to go.  Mr. Thoreau is odd but magical! He teaches the children about the beauty of nature and plays his flute. Louisa is enchanted by the unusual man. She senses a kindred spirit in him. Louisa wishes her words would come as easily as Mr. Thoreau's notes. Can she ever create something so beautiful?

This story may not be 100% true in facts but it is a good introduction to Louisa May Alcott. The spirit of the story is true even if the facts are not. Louisa was a wild, wilful girl who hated being forced into the narrow box prescribed for girls and women at that time. Mr. Thoreau was an odd duck who didn't fit in, much like Louisa. His teachings and his music inspire Louisa to become a better writer. This is a lovely message for children. I think nature loving niece and nephew will especially enjoy this book and niece who identifies with Jo March, will sense a kindred spirit in Louisa. I certainly did when I first read about her. This book also provides a great introduction to Henry David Thoreau though I think my nieces and nephews may have read the Henry bear series (by D.B. Johnson) based on Thoreau's life. It provided me with a better sense of who he was as a person. 

The woodcut illustrations are wonderful! An old-fashioned craft that gives both the old-fashioned feel but also the bold splash of color modern kids like. I like wild Louisa with her hair flowing and her ink blots. She reminds me of Laura Ingalls. The colors seem accurate for the period (I'm not seeing any wild colors that don't appear in nature) and show kids that old doesn't mean dull. 

Daniel on the RunDaniel on the Run by Claiborne Dawes, illustrated by J. Stephen Moyer--early middle grades historical fiction (grades 1-3)

It's the 1840s in Concord, Massachusetts and young Will Crawford likes to tease girls with frogs. The one girl who isn't creeped out is Louisa Alcott. Two years Will's senior, twelve-year-old Louisa is gutsy and strong. She's Ok for a girl. When Louisa shows Will the best berry patch, she loses Anna's good hat but finds a surprise- an enslaved boy running north to Canada. Can Louisa and Will help the boy on his journey?

As a realistic, historical factual event this incident never happened and the book is too much fiction for my personal taste. I find it highly doubtful that Louisa would identify herself and Will and share so much about the Underground Railroad. The broadside shown on the title page shows just why this would be detrimental to the abolition cause. Louisa's parents could be arrested and jailed. Anyone Louisa mentions or brings in to help could be arrested. The point of the Underground Railroad is that it operated in secret! The people, the signs, the signals, they're all secret! It was against the law to help a runaway slave and slave catchers could come and haul the enslaved person back in chains. People got scared, feared arrest and imprisonment so would turn on their neighbors if they had to. Louisa's parents were extraordinarily unusual in their attitudes and beliefs. They're way ahead of their time even today.

I didn't particularly care for the sketch style illustrations. I don't think Louisa looked like herself. We don't know what she looked like at 12 but I don't think this is an accurate representation. To quibble, I'd say she would wear her hair down or pulled back in braids and her skirt should be shorter because she's a child and not a grown woman. We know this from Little Women!

Now, evaluating the story from the perspective of my nieces who are just learning about the Underground Railroad, I think they will enjoy the story. They don't know much about Louisa and this is a good, brief introduction to her personality. Will is fictional and I don't really like him because he's kind of mean and a tease. Will learns a lot in a brief amount of time and I believe it will shape his character. I bought this mostly for my nieces and I will put it downstairs in my library for their little hands to grab and read. I hope it will later introduce my nephews to my hero.