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With shows at Park Square and Jungle, Jane Austen's work continues to evolve in 2019

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley Dan Norman

Is Jane Austen the new Shakespeare? Previous generations reimagined Romeo and Juliet on the mean streets of New York and in the steamy pools of Mexico City, but now it’s Pride and Prejudice that’s being constantly adapted. That includes a YouTube series; a stack of new novels set everywhere from Pakistan to a zombie apocalypse; and plays, including two recent hits that are both being staged right now in the Twin Cities.

Playwright Kate Hamill, whose fresh literary adaptations include world premieres of Little Women last season at the Jungle Theater and Austen’s Emma this spring at the Guthrie, debuted her Pride script in 2017. Director Lisa Channer is now helming a production of Hamill’s irreverent play at Park Square Theatre, with a warm ensemble cast that revels in the show’s accessible fun.

Best of all is a superb Elizabeth in China Brickey, who epitomizes the character’s intelligence, energy, and charm. Paul Rutledge’s underplayed Darcy can’t hold a candle to this Lizzy, but her infamously boisterous family is well-represented with matriarch George Keller overseeing sisters Jane (a demure Sara Richardson), Mary (Neal Beckman, playing caricature), and Lydia (Kiara Jackson, preening gleefully).

The play is presented within the confines of a taped-off square, with furnishings towed in from the wings to establish the various settings. Unfortunately, this production, which might have thrived in a more intimate space, is seriously dampened by Park Square’s large Proscenium Stage. Floating in darkness with their voices echoing cavernously, the actors seem to be stuck in a Regency-era Twilight Zone.

The Jungle is more fortuitously equipped in this respect, with its cozy stage once again transformed into the Pemberley estate for a reprise of Miss Bennet. The Pride and Prejudice sequel, written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, was previously presented at the Jungle in 2017—with a second Gunderson/Melcon sequel, The Wickhams, co-commissioned by the Jungle and staged last year.

If you’re seeing only one holiday show this year and you haven’t caught Miss Bennet, grab your tickets immediately. It’s a brilliant play suffused with heart and humor, the Christmas setting adding both poignance and the show’s best running gag. Mary barks her indignance in Hamill’s adaptation, but here she’s fleshed out into a fully realized character, perfectly played by returning Christian Bardin.

If you saw The Wickhams, you’ll appreciate all the more how the playwrights strive to humanize every character (not to mention the ingenious construction that has the two “side-quels” unfolding simultaneously on different levels of the Darcys’ mansion). Multiple 2017 performers return, including the priceless Anna Hickey as Anne de Bourgh; new cast members include Andrea San Miguel, whose shameless Lydia had Friday night’s audience members shaking with laughter.

By the end, they were gasping with happy tears as the show reached its profoundly moving conclusion. Both of these Pride-inspired productions mark welcome returns to Austen’s world, and effectively demonstrate just how readily that world can expand.

Pride and Prejudice
Park Square Theatre
20 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul
651-291-7005; through December 22

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
Jungle Theater
2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-822-7063; through December 29