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Three-Play Challenge

The Castle of Otranto, First Folio Shakespeare Festival, 2009
Sense and Sensibility, Theatre of Western Springs, 2009
Pride and Prejudice, GreenMan Theatre Troupe, 2009

Despite the ninety-point spread between my Math and English SAT scores, I know I spend more time watching live theatre than any big or little screen. So I gladly took the challenge to see three Austen-related plays in as many weeks. What follow are my impressions. They’re offered with the full knowledge that I have no right to any opinion. As Kenneth Tynan said, “A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.

The Castle of Otranto

Eager to begin, I caught the preview of First Folio Shakespeare Festival’s original adaptation by David Rice of The Castle of Otranto, the Horace Walpole tale of gothic dread. To current viewers Otranto reads (and plays) like an extended cliché, but that’s easily forgiven. As an author of the debut Gothic, Walpole could counter, “In my novel, it’s all, well, novel.”

Though Catherine Moreland never mentions Otranto, I entered the theatre as her proxy, quivering with dread-filled delight at first sight of the stage. If only a staircase in Northanger had led to this skull-strewn catacomb! Spending an evening with Manfred (a villain “with gimlet eyed gusto”1 and the prospective father-in-law of an innocent girl) would have sated any urge to turn General Tilney into a wife murderer. Perhaps Catherine and Mr. Tilney could have avoided that blowup.

And what if Mr. Tilney had escorted me to the play? I imagined Tilney beside me, equally engrossed in chuckling at the show and, possibly, at himself for caring. Walpole once wrote to Anne, Countess of Ossory, “This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel." Accordingly, Otranto is a campy comedy as well as a pulse pounder. If Austenland decides to add rides, the Catherine Moreland ride could be First Folio’s Castle of Otranto.

But why didn’t Miss M. ever gush over Otranto? Perhaps Catherine decided to give the cut direct to Otranto’s charming hero, Theodore, for choosing the second girl he charms. Any romance reader knows that once Theodore helps Princess Isabella escape the lecherous clutches of Manfred, he’s obligated to fall in love with her. Like goslings, romance readers latch on to the first potential partner who shows kindness or interest in the heroine—however improbable the match. Most readers need a lot of convincing that any male the heroine first meets up with isn’t “the one”: he has to be her brother (Star Wars), unattracted to women (Dark Labyrinth, It Had to Be You), married (All She Ever Wanted), out on bail for solicitation (Summer on Blossom Street). Jennifer Crusie, editor of Flirting with Pride and Prejudice, says she takes pains to make sure Mr. Right knew the girl first if ever he won’t show up until after her readers meet Mr. Not-Quite-So-Right. Seeing Princess Isabella left in the dust made me grateful that Austen played by the rules. Catherine Moreland, and indeed every heroine in the Big Six, winds up with the first man with whom she establishes a rapport.

Sense and Sensibility

My daughter loved the high school movie John Tucker Must Die. Even if a group of girls wish John Tucker would pay the ultimate price for his cheating ways, moms in the audience know that the cocky and self-focused Tucker should be given the chance to grow into his good looks and self-confidence.

But I must admit I’ve harbored cruel thoughts of Marianne Dashwood. Returning home from Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, I called a friend: “I just had one question. When Marianne was dying, why did Elinor cry?” Let’s admit it: until she nearly expires from a thorough wetting, Marianne is uncooperative, self-focused, excluding, imprudent, uncivil, self-indulgent, ungrateful, and intolerant. If she were Lydia Bennet, we’d smack her. But like John Tucker, she deserved the chance to grow up.

I didn’t realize how much Marianne’s youth was her sole defense until I sat front row center in The Theatre of Western Springs and saw Marianne played by a woman who was in grade school when Kennedy was shot. Knowing that Mary Martin played Peter Pan just didn’t help. What I saw was a woman my age acting like a brat. Marianne’s repentance speech couldn’t come soon enough; however, with the age difference erased, never before had her marriage to Colonel Brandon seemed so understandable.

Less understandable was the interpretation of Edward Ferrars, whom Joe Stead, a reviewer with no preconceptions, called “hapless,” “a cheerful loafer,” and “meek but mannerly.” 2 Yet Vicki Ann Blair’s interpretation of Elinor was charming and fresh. With excellent comedic timing, Elinor’s wry acceptance of her increasingly untenable situation elicited our compassion, and we laughed ruefully with her. She and Mrs. Jennings remind us why this is a romantic comedy.

Pride and Prejudice

I would love to throw money at GreenMan Theatre Troupe for any number of reasons. Their Pride and Prejudice showed deep respect for Austen’s novel. They chose Christina Calvit’s careful adaptation and let Austen’s work guide their interpretation. Indeed, a goal was to know the story in a fuller way by the end of their seven weeks of rehearsals. Such a commitment resulted in nuanced performances--proof being Maria Knoll Benner’s Mrs. Bennet, which did not begin and remain at a single shrill decibel level, a common failing of Mrs. Bennets. Explaining her performance, Benner said she tried to “look at her from the inside, not just the outside.” And it didn’t take Holly Robison’s admission that she loved Elizabeth Bennet to convince me; she was one of the finest Lizzies I’ve ever seen, even on screen.

But here was another production that sharpened my opinions as much as it entertained me. I came to realize that Darcy’s my deal breaker. No big surprise, I guess. I’ve long believed he’s the hardest Austen role to play well. Darcy has so much to communicate—to excuse—with so few chances. For most of a production, Darcy is like a loosely bound and completely gagged man; he needs to use speaking looks and slight gestures to communicate his frustration, vulnerability, and passion. And when the gag is removed, his words must sell.

The Green Man production hammered this home for me. Scott Surowiecki’s silences did not further his point, but when he opened his mouth, it was all over.

In Flirting with Pride and Prejudice, Lani Diane Rich writes that a Darcy is made by his eyes (the smoldering quality of his every look), his ability to look masculine while dancing, his passion, his choice of the smart girl, his vulnerability, and his accent. Says Rich, “I will confess that the Darcy accent I concocted in my head while reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time was a huge contributer to my fictional man crush.”3 At the point when I saw the show, mid-production, Scott Surowiecki hadn’t conquered the Darcy accent, despite much coaching and effort. That night was a flashback to the time my birthday party was ruined when my boyfriend didn’t show; in the moment an entire cast of excellent actors couldn’t quite make up for a missing Mr. Darcy. Yet the memories that remain are of skillfully woven dances, Lizzie’s flawless delivery, Mrs. Bennet’s humanity, Charlotte’s deliberate contentment, and Lady Catherine’s presence. Despite my backseat driving, I’m so grateful to the artists who worked to bring Castle of Otranto, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice to Chicago audiences.

-Lori Davis, Letter from Chicago, Spring 2010

1 Kerry Reid, “First Folio gets a little lost in gothic ‘Castle of Otranto.” <;feed:a=chi_trib_10min&feed:c=entertainment&feed:i=49727173&nopaging=1>


3 Lani Diane Rich, “My Firth Love.” Jennifer Crusie, ed. Flirting with Pride & Prejudice (Dallas, TX: Benbella, 2005), 119-120.