Although Jane Austen lived nearly 200 years after William Shakespeare, they shared a literary sensitivity to the social rituals that make courtship such a trying experience. That's why it isn't much of a stretch for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company to do a theatrical adaptation of Austen's novel "Pride and Prejudice" at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City.
"Pride and Prejudice" is a comedy of manners that resembles some of Shakespeare's comedies. A strong-minded young woman, Elizabeth Bennet, seems to enjoy fending off any romantic overtures made by the eligible bachelors swirling around her. Equally proud, Fitzwilliam Darcy seems to enjoy being rude to Elizabeth.
They hate each other right up until the moment when they have to acknowledge to themselves and then to each other that they're actually in love. It's a formula that Shakespeare would recognize; for that matter, Hollywood screwball comedies in the 1930s and so-called romcoms today spin variations on it.
Besides the amorous storyline thematically linking Shakespeare and Austen, it doesn't hurt that Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is performing "Pride and Prejudice" in rotating repertory with Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." The same actors appear in both shows; and a crucial component of the "Romeo and Juliet" set, namely, Juliet's balcony, becomes a perch for Austen's characters to share gossip.
These Shakespeare-Austen links help explain why this production of "Pride and Prejudice" is so delightfully light on its feet, but credit also goes to Christina Calvit's adaptation of the novel. Although some of Austen's numerous and subtle observations inevitably are truncated, the heart of the story survives intact; and Calvit deftly incorporates long speeches and also letters read aloud that present much of Austen's phrasing.
What really makes this adaptation come alive are the lively performances. Blythe Coons brings out the extent to which Elizabeth is a free-spirited woman who privately agonizes that her sharp behavior will prevent her from finding true love.
Although the more restrained Mr. Darcy, as he's generally called, often seems like no more than a stuffed shirt character, Adam Sheaffer is able to bring out the character's struggle to finally express his gentler emotions.
It's mildly distracting that this borderline-portly actor has a more, er, overstuffed shirt than is the Mr. Darcy norm in movie adaptations of the novel, but it could be argued that this qualifies as a sign of Mr. Darcy's wealth.
For all the assertiveness of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, they're sometimes nearly lost in a crowd of characters forcefully sharing various opinions. Set in several English mansions and villages in 1812, "Pride and Prejudice" emphasizes the extent to which love and marriage are anything but private matters.
As prospective marital partners tentatively engage in courtship rituals, they're closely scrutinized by parents, siblings and everybody else in town. Marriage is primarily seen as a financial arrangement by this society, meaning one's ethical worth seemingly counts for less than one's financial status.
A very particular consideration for the Bennet family is that they have five teen-aged and young adult daughters entering the marital marketplace. It's fun watching Elizabeth asserting herself within a noisy sibling line-up that also includes Jane (Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly), Mary (Lizzi Albert), Kitty (Jana Stambaugh) and Lydia (Rachael Jacobs). And it's just as amusing to watch their parents: the bookish and diffident Mr. Bennet (a suitably distracted-looking Jonas David Grey) and the motormouth Mrs. Bennet (the show-stealing Lesley Malin).
There are many additional characters residing in several mansions in the English countryside. Although a few of the supporting actors slip into stale caricature, most make a pungent impression and add to the sense of a gossip-hungry society.
Speaking of gossip, director Isabelle Anderson's fluid staging is especially good at arranging these talkative characters all over the stage, up in that balcony, and even in the Patapsco Female Institute's imposing stone window frames. In one brilliantly directed scene, characters standing within four window frames freeze in place and become paintings hanging on a mansion wall.
It's unusual to have anybody stand in place for very long, however, because those involved in courtships are more likely to be walking and talking at the same time. They're also constantly attending dances, because they know how readily a dance partner can become a marital partner.
"Pride and Prejudice" runs in rotating repertory with "Romeo and Juliet" through July 29 at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3691 Sarah's Lane in Ellicott City. The general performance schedule is Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 6 p.m., but check for specific plays and dates. Tickets are $15- $36; children under 18 free. Call 410-313-8661 or go to http://www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com.