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Center Stage's 'Pride and Prejudice' and a hint of hip-hop

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Lizzy and Darcy are at it again, learning to put aside "Pride and Pejudice" for premiere at Center Stage.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged," Jane Austen wrote at the start of "Pride and Prejudice," "that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

The corollary is that someone, somewhere will adapt this perennially popular novel for stage or screen.

A 1940 film version featured Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier as a memorable pair in black and white, portraying the romantic protagonists — hasty-first impression-prone Elizabeth (Lizzy) Bennet and proud, condescending Mr. Darcy. Twenty years ago, a colorful BBC television miniseries with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth won fervent fans.

"Pride and Prejudice" has undergone musical treatments several times, including one that lasted a short while on Broadway in 1959 and another that received a staged reading a couple of months ago in Houston. The now-two-century-old book has inspired quite a few plays as well, including a version by Christopher Baker that receives its world premiere this week at Center Stage.

"You have to immerse yourself into Austen's world and frame of mind, but you can bring your own frame of mind to it," says Baker, associate professor of dramaturgy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "Austen was really able to capture the mechanics of the heart so well, how a touch of a hand or a look or a word sets off emotions. That's still true with us today in the way we live our romantic lives."

Baker started on his adaptation of the novel several years ago, commissioned by Hartford Stage in Connecticut, where he was senior dramaturg. The person behind that commission was the company's associate artistic director at the time, Hana S. Sharif, who joined the Center Stage staff last year in a similar position.

"We both had a passion for Austen and Austen's work," says Sharif. "The piece went through a development process and a workshop, but at the time, it was too big for Hartford Stage [a staged reading was held there in 2012]. When I came to Center Stage, I pored over different adaptations of 'Pride and Prejudice' to find the right one for this institution. This one kept rising to the top."

Not surprisingly, Baker's adaptation trims from the novel.

"It's impossible to get all the characters onstage," he says. "And I cut the end of the book, when Austen explains what happens to everyone. Nobody cares. Austen is very funny, and I tried to keep in her humor, but some things I had to cut because they just don't translate well today."

And not just witty things.

"Austen makes multiple use of 'violence' in connection with 'affection,'" Sharif says. "In 2015, that's a very different connotation than it had when she used it. But [Baker] has written a beautiful, fluid piece that maintains Austen's voice. He's always seeking the intent of her words."

An original musical score has been created for the production by the New York collective known as Broken Chord. Don't expect just a Mozart-Haydn sort of sound.

"We're not gong as far as 'Hamilton' [the rap-filled musical smash now on Broadway], but the score blends a very classical sound that reflects the turn of the 19th century and also reflects very contemporary sounds, like hip-hop. It's the way [director/screenwriter] Sofia Coppola did in [the 2006 film] 'Marie Antoinette.'"

For this "Pride and Prejudice," Center Stage assembled a two-story set and an ensemble of 21 actors.

"The costumes are beautiful, and the cast is beautiful," Baker says.

The two New York-based actors helping give that cast its physical appeal are Kate Abbruzzese, who plays Elizabeth, and A.J. Shively as Darcy. Neither joined the venture as devoted Austen fans.

"I read it in high school and loathed it," Shively concedes. "But I was coming from Stephen King-land. I remember saying in class, 'Can anything happen, please?' Rereading it now, I'm finding a lot more to it than I thought."

Abbruzzese had a similar experience.

"I didn't grow up loving Austen desperately," she says. "But I think ['Pride and Prejudice'] is timeless. It chronicles an emotional journey very well."

That journey finds Elizabeth going from an initial dismissal of Darcy as vain and cold to the realization that she loves him, and Darcy going from indifference toward Elizabeth to affection and respect. It's not just about discovering love. The story unfolds at a time when marriage meant absolutely everything for a woman. Elizabeth is one of five Bennet daughters in the novel, all in need of a partner.

"These girls could face a horrific future if their father died and they weren't married," says Baker, who reduced the number of siblings in the household to a more theatrically manageable four.

(Kitty is the one missing, but one of the remaining sisters enjoys an expanded role here. "Mary is different than she is in the novel," Baker says, "much younger. Jane Austen wasn't completely kind to Mary. I am very kind to her.")

The intense pressure on women in Austen's day to find security is an issue that is never far from the surface in "Pride and Prejudice."

"There was no other option for them but to marry well," Shively says. "If not, the most a well-brought-up girl could hope for was maybe a live-in governess job."

Such a world does not seem remote to the participants in this fresh take on the novel.

Baker points to continued gender disparity financially — "Even today, women get hit differently with the economy," he says — and Abbruzzese calls attention to a dark issue from international headlines. "Look at how women are being treated in some parts of the world," she says. "Look at ISIS."

The world Austen lived in was hardly free of crisis. Britain and other European countries were engaged in costly battles of one kind or another while she was writing "Pride and Prejudice."

"But Austen doesn't talk about war," Baker says. "If she did, we couldn't laugh at the humor. And, of course, we know that love is going to win out. The story is artificial in that way. But we like to see that played out."

That playing out does have plenty of twists and turns.

"I find Austen's work romantic, but complicated, and I'm a fan of complexity," Sharif says. "I appreciate her ability to show us how difficult the pathways to marriage can be, and how important the mate you choose is, especially when you had no rights that were not granted by the husband. I love the critique Austen was making of her society."

Baker chose to focus on the society of 1797, when Austen finished the first version of the novel (it was rejected by a publisher), and not 1813, when the book finally saw the light of print.

"I thought the end of the 18th century was more interesting than the early 19th," Baker says. "I wanted it to feel even farther away from the Victorian period, the sexual repression of that period. This was a time when people gave huge balls and went to them to find partners and do business."

"And to touch," adds Faedra Carpenter, the production's dramaturg. "There was a sexual tension in the ball."

Dance scenes are a big part of this production, especially in the first act, Baker says, a way to underline "the constant whirlwind of interaction" among the characters.

At the center of that whirlwind is Elizabeth, blessed (or cursed) with intellect in a man's world.

"I think everyone can identify with what the difficulties can be for a woman who is the smartest person in the room, how difficult it can be to negotiate that," Baker says. "The way in which characters negotiate with each other emotionally in this story is very familiar to us today."

In preparing his adaptation, Baker was mindful of past efforts.

"All the versions influenced me to some extent," he says. "Watching the BBC version with Jennifer Ehle made me go back to the book and fall in love with it."

The popularity of some of the film or TV treatments of "Pride and Prejudice" may make things a little tougher on the actors. Some audience members might arrive with set ideas about various traits, physical and otherwise, of their favorite characters.

"Every single person has mentioned Colin Firth," Shively says with a laugh.

The creative team behind the production sounds confident that this transformation of a beloved book can hold up on its own and honor the source.

"Whether for film or theater, an adaptation necessitates a certain amount of creative license," Sharif says. "What lives on the page does not live in the same fashion on the stage. But people should come expecting to see a classic 'Pride and Prejudice.'"

For his part, Baker is not just interested in reaching confirmed Austen admirers.

"I hope people who don't know the book," he says, "or have their own prejudices about the story, will get it."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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If you go

"Pride and Prejudice," currently in previews, opens Friday and runs through Oct. 11 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $19 to $59. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.

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