Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly – Something about Mary
Did theater panic at the invention of movies? Did it happen again with television? I feel like every other year (pandemic notwithstanding) there are a thousand overblown articles about what’s killing the stage. Netflix is never going to have the same language as theater, nor does film, and neither, unfortunately, does the “thilm” that occurs when you try to shoot live theater, especially with laptop cameras of varying quality. It’s no one’s fault, few people wake up and decide it’s ideal to try to home Zoom a traditional play. If you’re going to whistle in the Covid dark, though, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly, a show about the Regency upper class, isn’t a bad call. After all, these were people that sat still for so long that walking around the room was a legit activity, and social distance was literally baked into their DNA, so the limited range of motion offered by this medium translates. It doesn’t 100% work, but is there fun to be had? Sure.
Pemberly wasn’t written by Jane Austen, but by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon (and has also become hella popular for the regional stage over the last couple of years). This frothy piece mostly lacks Austen’s sharp observation in favor of the kind of candy audiences love consuming come December. Gunderson and Melcon have regulated Pride and Prejudice’s most famous couple, tart Lizzie (Emily H. Gilson) and snobby-yet-hot (?) Mr. Darcy (Alex Kafarakis) to the background; they’re mostly stuck faffing about a Christmas tree. The plot centers on Arthur de Bourgh (Anna O’Malley Steuerman), a hapless, wealthy young man who has wandered into the Bennets’ marital sniper nest, and Mary Bennet (Volcano Jones), the third oldest sister. The tension is underbaked, with the late entrance of Anne de Bourgh (Emma Hooks), a potential rival, doing little to ratchet up the conflict, but it’s a holiday play that doesn’t feel overlong, which is a minor Christmas miracle in and of itself.
Erin Riley and Dana Woodson are talented theatrical directors throwing a lot of ideas at this virtual medium and seeing what sticks. Some of the choices, like beautifully rendered paper cuts (Mika J. Nakano) that move the story along at intervals à la Reading Rainbow, are expressly charming. Others, like slightly awkward vignettes of the actors doing various Christmas-y things, fall more flat. Riley and Woodson have a lot to do just to keep the acting at some level of natural when the actors have to speak full front like it’s a cut scene in a video game. I’m impressed at where this succeeded. There is real chemistry between Steuerman and Jones, and their performances invested me in their character’s fate, even though that destiny was telegraphed by the writing from the first scene. Stuerman is especially wonderful, de Bourgh is so nervous that he at times comes across like an anthropomorphized deer, to great comic effect. I was delighted to see one of my favorite local actors, Betse Lyons, in an inspired bit of casting as the mean cupcake that is Lydia Wickham (I especially liked a apologetic scene where Lyons grows Lydia’s heart three sizes, and somehow manages to be convincing). And Justin Johnson has a lot of fun with the baffable Mr. Bingley, who is generally confused by everything, but probably happy about it – droll hilarity ensues when he and Kafarakis’ Mr. Darcy take a horrified Arthur under their rather less-than-comforting brotherly wings.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly is a gentle Christmas fanfic that will amuse Austen fans and leave everyone else slightly puzzled. The virtual medium is not ideal, nor is the uneven technical quality, but it’s Christmas, and the performances are strong enough to make you forget the hellscape we currently live in for a couple of hours, and I’ll take a little fucking fun right about now. So should you.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly plays through December 20th and is a virtual performance.