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REVIEW: Delightful Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Jungle Theater)

Fitzwilliam Darcy (James Rodríguez), Charles Bingley (Sam Bardwell), Jane Bingley (Adia Morris), Mary Bennet (Christian Bardin), Arthur de Bourgh (JuCoby Johnson), Lydia Wickham (Kelsey Didion), Elizabeth Darcy (Sun Mee Chomet), and Anne de Bourgh (Anna Hickey). Photo by Dan Norman.

The Jungle Theater’s production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, which opened Friday, is an utterly delightful show that can easily become an annual holiday classic. This humorous play continues the story of the Bennet sisters of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice. Playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon recently wrote this work as a sequel to Austen’s novel and a form of fan fiction. Although much of the humor trades on familiarity with Pride and Prejudice, no recent reading or viewing is required – although seeing the play will likely make you want to read or re-read the book. Christina Baldwin’s direction maximizes the play’s physical and witty humor with a wonderful, non-traditionally cast ensemble.

The plot begins up a couple years after Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) Bennet and Jane Bennet obtained their love-match weddings to two wealthy men and Lydia married a solider she foolishly ran off with. While Lizzie and Jane’s marriages are quite happy, Lydia’s husband is frequently absent and inattentive. The second youngest sister, Kitty Bennet, is referenced but (as noted by one of her sisters) completely left out of this Christmas story. The play’s focus is on their middle sister, Mary Bennet – a character rather neglected in the original Pride and Prejudice.

Mary appears in Austen’s book as an avid reader and accomplished pianist, somewhat vain about her musical abilities (considered an important part of a well-educated middle or upper-class woman’s upbringing) and constantly seeking praise from others about it. Now, two years after the events of Pride and Prejudice, Mary is grown up and has taken on some of Lizzie’s spunk. Although Mary has always sought time to read books and practice her music, she now finds this singular existence unsatisfying and resents her status as the overlooked spinster sister who will someday likely be relegated to living in one of her sisters’ attic.

Mary Bennet (Christian Bardin) and Arthur de Bourgh (JuCoby Johnson) enjoy a happy Christmas moment. Photo by Dan Norman.

The four sisters meet at Lizzie’s home at Pemberley with both Lizzie’s husband Fitzwilliam Darcy and Jane’s husband Charles Bingley. Feeling somewhat ignored by her sisters, Mary is content to read the books in Darcy’s library and play the piano. Soon Arthur De Bourgh, Darcy’s cousin, arrives for the holiday. Like Mary, Arthur would prefer to look at maps and read books than interact with people. These two “nerds” seem perfect for each other and they very much enjoy each other’s awkward company – only for Arthur’s inheritance to come with some unexpected complications, misperceptions, and other drama to resolve. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy single-handedly fixes all of the problems; in this play, the older and wiser Darcy and Bingley defer to their wives to find a resolution.

Despite some inconsistencies with the accents, the acting is otherwise top-rate. Christian Bardin’s Mary and Jucoby Johnson’s Arthur provide great physical humor with their mutual social awkwardness that is reminiscent of the hilarious yet touching relationship between Sheldon and Amy on The Big Bang Theory. The pair also deftly banter in their own intellectual vein, a source of much witty humor. There is a lot of physical humor, such as whenever Kelsey Didion’s engaging Lydia bursts into a room searching for Arthur and Arthur desperately hides.

One of the more interesting secondary arcs involves Anna Hickey as Anne de Bourgh, who succeeds in capturing the transition from desperate power despot to a more liberated personality. Sun Mee Chomet plays a much wiser Lizzie, but it is hard to accept Lizzie as only a supporting character; Lizzie’s pluckiness best stands out during a running joke about introducing the German tradition of Christmas trees to her family. Adia Morris as Jane Bingley seems to be a much wiser and more caring Jane than she was in Austen’s book. James Rodrigues’ Darcy is no longer the brooding snob he was, and he has clearly been domesticated by his Lizzie. Sam Bardwell’s plays an almost child-like Charles Bingley smitten with the thought of fatherhood.

Sarah Bahr’s costume and scene design work does a splendid job of setting both the atmosphere and the time period. Although the set framework appears to be right out of the Jungle’s previous production of The Heiress, little touches such as being able to view those approaching the door and the occasional slapstick entrances and exits work well. In a nice touch, the set features an actual square fortepiano and piano recordings made on a period-appropriate fortepiano.

This play is a much needed sequel for Jane Austen fans, but its humor and wit is equally entertaining for someone who has never read an Austen novel. Those attending Miss Bennet will find the ultimate relaxing and whimsical experience for the holiday season.

Author’s Note: A major plot point of Christmas at Pemberley involves the legal requirement of entailment forcing estates to be passed on to the nearest legitimate male heir. Entailment was the major quandary confronting the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice, since it would leave the Bennet sisters and their mother homeless and penniless after their father’s death – if they did not marry, of course. In this play, however, there is no explanation as to why Anne’s mother was able to retain her husband’s estate and it only passed to Arthur upon the mother’s death. As an attorney, some explanation for this inconsistency would have brought me peace of mind.

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley plays at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, MN through December 30.

Bev Wolfe