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REVIEW: The Many Returns of Jane Austen in Christmas at Pemberley (Jungle Theater)

Fitzwilliam Darcy (James Rodríguez, left) and Charles Bingley (Jesse Lavercome, right) advise the inexperienced Arthur de Bourgh (Reese Britts, center) on how to write letters to women in the Jungle Theater production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Photo by Dan Norman.

The Jungle Theater’s 2017 holiday hit Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is back. Name not ring a bell? What about Death Comes to Pemberley? No? Okay, well, you remember Pride and Prejudice, right?

In case you need further prompting, Pemberley is the family estate of the handsome, extremely wealthy, and more than a bit haughty (and hottie) Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s seminal novel Pride and Prejudice. Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s continuation play Christmas at Pemberley picks up the story after two Bennet sisters have married into the Darcy and Bingley families, with the family brought back together for the Christmas holiday. Naturally, the road to Christmas does not run smoothly, thanks to some old sibling rivalries and romantic wrenches tossed in to complicate the plot.

What’s it like being the middle sister? Mary Bennet (Christian Bardin, center) has a few thoughts that she’d like to share. With Jane Bingley (Roshni Desai, left), Elizabeth Darcy (Sun Mee Chomet, second from right), and Lydia Wickham (Andrea San Miguel, right). Photo by Dan Norman.

One of the virtues of Gunderson and Melcon’s script on the repeat is that it both feels very familiar and gives a new look at these old friends from the screen and page. It also, in case you’re wondering, brilliantly plants the seeds for story threads that come to the forefront in the play’s own sequel The Wickhams (which, itself, will hopefully be returning next year).

While Christina Baldwin returns as the director, there have been a few shuffles in the cast since 2017. If you’re considering seeing this show again, however, an item of greater interest is that this show has a very different vibe in its new incarnation. To begin with, the play unfolds much faster, and to farcical effect. If the 2017 production was a serious play with a lot of very funny moments, the present one is a no-punches pulled, flat-out comedy. It’s a strength of the material that it does well in both guises, and Saturday’s audience responded warmly by regularly convulsing the theatre with laughter.

Music making with period Christmas songs (and a few parodies) are a highlight of the production. The main ensemble is enhanced by the voices of professional singers Jennifer LeDoux and Abilene Olson, who double as servants. The pictured instrument is a square fortepiano on loan from the Schubert Club. Photo by Dan Norman.

Another change in shading in this incarnation are the more visible threads of sisterhood. These diffuse a few tense moments and enhance the poignancy of several scenes, particularly Mary (Christian Bardin)’s monologue on the invisibility of middle sisterhood. Bardin’s passionate delivery brought the audience to a hush broken only by murmurs of sympathy and a few sobs from the audience. It’s a powerful moment combining Baldwin’s careful directing and Bardin’s poignant performance – as before, one of the show’s highlights.

One of the questions that you might ask, perhaps, is “Will I enjoy this show if I haven’t experienced Pride and Prejudice?” You could, perhaps, wander across the river to St. Paul to see Pride and Prejudice onstage, which by happenstance is also playing on Park Square Theatre’s stage. However, judging by some intermission comments from theatregoers, that step is actually unnecessary, as the vividly painted characters suck you quickly into this world. You might want to read the book or go binge-watching the mini-series for other reasons involving your significant other, however. Either way, it’s a pretty solid date night pick.

Mary Bennet (Christian Bardin) attempts to put thoughts to paper. Photo by Dan Norman.

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley runs through December 29 at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine