The holiday season is upon us, whether we like it or not, and this weekend was a perfect snowy setting to attend “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” presented by Road Less Traveled Productions at Shea’s 710 Theatre. Welcomed immediately into the world of Jane Austen by an inspired set design at the hands of Bethany Kasperek, the atmosphere felt almost anticipatory. Years of readers are familiar with these characters, and Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have breathed new life into the “Pride and Prejudice” heroine and her sisters, two years later.
You’ll regret missing this production.
The entire Bennet family will be joining the Darcys at their home at Pemberley for the holidays; Mary, Jane and her husband Charles Bingley (with Jane expecting their first child), and the effervescent Lydia, traveling (much to Mary’s relief) separately. Mr. Darcy receives news they are to be joined by Arthur deBourgh, newly the master of an estate though he’d much prefer to stay at Oxford. And so, the Darcy home will be filled for Christmas.
As Mary Bennet, heroine of this story, Alexandria Watts is exquisitely charming and confident, equal parts wit and melancholy, but always sure of herself. It’s clear Mary is beginning to feel alone and excluded, especially from her married older sisters. Watts is nothing short of captivating in her RLTP debut, bringing humor and strength to her portrayal.
Amy Feder, also making her RLTP debut, is a delightful Elizabeth Darcy. She is particularly strong in the opening scene with her husband, who is incredulous as to the presence of a Christmas tree inside the house. It’s a German tradition, of course, but he can’t remember becoming German.
Buffalo theatergoers will recognize Todd Benzin, who in this production is playing Feder’s husband. He carries himself, both physically and vocally, in a commanding way, yet brings a gentleness to his portrayal of Austen’s heartthrob.
The Bingleys, enamored with their impending parenthood, are ably captured by Rosa Fernandez and Darryl Semira. Fernandez carries herself in the role of Jane with the experience of older sister bringing an almost matriarchal touch to her performance; it adds a subtlety to Jane’s character I quite enjoyed. Semira, too, is a performer you can’t help but watch. He and Benzin, masters of physical technique, make easy work of each moment given; a subtle look, casually sinking into armchairs in unison. They’re seasoned actors, in an experience sense, and it shows.
As Lydia, the bubbly socialite of the Bennet sisters, Brittany Bassett is terrific as well. She doesn’t have an easy task – Lydia is energetic ad nauseum, which Bassett has managed to capture with a characterization which literally bounces her around the stage, even while bringing humanity to her portrayal. Tracy Snyder ably captures Anne deBourgh, an unannounced visitor and relative of Arthur’s.
All of these performances allow for an unbelievably diverse ensemble that unites as one to carry along this story, so to single out one seems irresponsible. That being said, Nick Stevens might actually have walked straight out of an Austen novel and onto the stage as Arthur deBourgh. He’s exactly what you’d imagine in an Austen male: witty, charmingly awkward (or is it awkwardly charming), tall, dark, handsome…et cetera. He embodies Arthur deBourgh, and sparks fly almost immediately between Stevens and Watts. You know their romance is inevitable almost from their first meeting, and so you almost yell at them from the audience to figure it out for themselves. Stevens is almost barely acting here, this type of piece comes so naturally to him that he’s able to expose Arthur’s soul with ease.
All of these wonderful actors, dressed beautifully by Jenna Damberger, benefit immeasurably from Katie Mallinson’s elegant direction. She’s RLTP’s resident dramturg, so period pieces are kind of her “thing” and she’s right at home. Her vision is clear and concise, it truly feels like we’re looking into an 1815 portrait of England, aided by excellent dialect coaching by Jennifer Toohey. Mallinson has managed to keep a very diverse audience on the edge of their seat, and the pace and flow never slows because she’s smartly added vignette scene changes that tie the scenes together. Mallinson is a young director whose work has been and continues to be sharp, creative, and fresh. This production is no exception.
If you’re perusing Netflix for a Christmas movie, or you’re glued to the Hallmark channel this season, I encourage you to turn off the console and get over the Shea’s 710 to see this unbelievable production. It’s the perfect family show, perfect holiday show, and the spacious auditorium will feel all the more inviting and welcoming when filled with a couple hundred other supporters of live theater in snowy Buffalo (or Pemberley). You’ll regret missing this production.
Running Time: 2 hours plus a 10 minute intermission.
“Miss Bennett – Christmas At Pemberly” runs until December 23, 2018, is produced by Road Less Traveled Productions, and is presented at Shea’s 710 Theatre. For more information, click here.