Pride & Prejudice Productions gives Austen a makeover | Theater Preview | Chicago Reader

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Pride & Prejudice Productions gives Austen a makeover

Melissa Leilani Larson and Lavina Jadhwani reimagine a classic for BIPOC voices.

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More than 30 years into this gig, I've lost track of how many times I've seen Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice adapted for the stage. The Regency-era author's enduring popularity isn't a mystery: Austen's novels championed women in an era when women's options for generating income faced draconian limitations. Unless they were titled, women of Great Britain's early 1800s couldn't even inherit property legally. Austen's work makes the potentially devastating consequences of codified misogyny crystal clear: the line between being unmarried or without means and the hellscape of the workhouse was, as it remains now in so many places, brutally porous.

So it is in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters have spent their lives in the family home—which, by law, will go to a male cousin upon their father's death. Depending on his whim, the Bennet women could be turned out into the street.

If you think Austen's 1812-set novel is ancient history, check your facts. Boomer women didn't face inheritance "entail" laws, but we couldn't even get a credit card without a husband's cosign until 1974. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Every femme reading this could list at least 1,000 heartbreaking ways that they've paid for their gender—financially, socially, and professionally. It's a bleak ledger, but Austen's exploration of it is exquisitely entertaining.

It takes some kind of genius to write a rom-com that is simultaneously a full-throttle exploration and commentary on institutionalized sexism and the endless hypocrisies of misogyny. Austen makes that literary feat look so easy. With just enough exceptions to prove the rule, theater has—for decades—made it look so white.

The tide may be finally shifting; Lifeline Theatre's September online take on Pride and Prejudice was a marvelously diverse affair. Now comes Pride & Prejudice Productions, which is also scrapping the old unwritten racist rulebook that has historically dictated how the novel should look.

Salt Lake City-based Melissa Leilani Larson's award-winning adaptation, which runs in a live streaming production Friday and Saturday, has two massive things going for it: a script that I must insist Austen would adore and a cast that doesn't look like it was lifted from a Currier and Ives print.

"Representation matters," Larson said. "I don't know how old I was when I realized that no one on TV or the movies looks like me, but it was young."

If representation is inching toward equity, it's because artists such as Larson and director Lavina Jadhwani are forever muscling aside the boulder that is the traditionally white-centered canon every aspiring theater artist is expected to adore.

"My experience coming up in training programs is that there's this unspoken sense that white is the default," Jadhwani said. The director has a BFA and an MA in drama from Carnegie Mellon and an MFA from the Theatre School at DePaul.

"Austen, Shakespeare, Chekhov—I'm attracted to the Western canon, even though I know that as a femme of color they weren't written for me as either a character or even as someone in the audience," she said. "I can't tell you how many times during auditions I heard someone say they hadn't been all that familiar with Austen because they knew there was nothing in it for them."

There is now. The casting notice for Pride and Prejudice reflected that, calling for five nonbinary characters in a story that is usually about 100 percent heteronormative and a cast that makes the Bennet family and friends a racially diverse group.

"My mom is from the Philippines," said Larson. "My family is a mixed race family. That's not something I see when I go to the theater. Or the movies. So when I saw that audition notice, I was so excited. I look at this cast and I'm like, that family looks like my family."

The child of immigrants from India and the grandchild of refugees displaced by the 1947 partition that turned part of India into Pakistan, Jadhwani has built her career with focus and intent at the intersection of art and activism. From helming As You Like It at Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater to Peter and the Starcatcher at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (COVID shut down the latter after the first week of performances in March) to casting for myriad Chicago companies including Lifeline, the (now-defunct) Hypocrites, and the Chicago Children's Theatre, the former artistic director of Chicago's Rasaka Theatre Company says she's constantly asking herself two questions.

"What does a family look like? What does love look like? Femme can look like so many things. Masc can look like so many things. Identities contain multitudes, and identity-conscious casting tries to honor that," she said.

Identity is at the core of Austen’s story of Elizabeth Bennet (Sarah-Lucy Hill, cofounder of Pride & Prejudice Productions, along with J. Michael Wright), her contentious, sexually charged relationship with the monied elite Fitzwilliam Darcy (Dan Lin), and the dire financial consequences she and her four sisters (Stephanie Fongheiser, Capri Campeau, Sophia Ramos, Stephanie Neuerburg) face if they don’t marry.

"Austen's writing about privilege and class, so obviously still huge issues that have been amplified by COVID," said Jadhwani.

Larson's adaptation captures the idealism and privilege of Elizabeth's insistence that marriage should be about love above all else even as everyone around her insists the institution is a financial transaction first that (hopefully) leads to love or something like it later.

"The expectation to marry—that it's the only way to secure one's financial and social future—weighs heavily. Why can’t we just live?" Elizabeth asks her best friend Charlotte. Charlotte responds with devastating practicality. "I can't afford to think that way. Father has a title, but not much else. I'm not getting any younger. I can't refuse a good living on a whim."

"We’re still dealing with that today, the fact that marriage and a woman's marital status is a really big financial deal," Larson said. "We want to say it’s 2020, we're past that, but I can tell you straight up as a single person, my car insurance is so much more expensive . . . I don't get the tax breaks married people can claim—it's a long list.

"Our society helps and rewards people who get married and have children—it incentivizes marriage. Which is great, unless you're not interested in doing that. It’s the same old misogyny, pure and simple," Larson said.

Pure, simple—and sometimes potentially lethal. That’s the subplot circling around George Wickham (Wright). Austen never uses the labels but there’s no question: Wickham is inarguably a rapist and very possibly a pedophile. He's often played more as the dashing rake of tired romantic tropes and less the predatory threat he really is. Not here.

"This kind of guy is always around," Larson said. "Today, he's potentially writing for the Wall Street Journal. He's the troll on the Internet. He's omnipresent. He's toxic masculinity personified, but sometimes he can be so charming you just don't see the danger. That was important to me—that the audience see the threat he posed to Lizzie and her sisters."

While most productions of Pride and Prejudice render Lizzie's sisters as a rather interchangeable cluster of lesser subplots, Larson is intent on giving each sister meat as well as bones.

"The fact that this production is amplifying BIPOC voices makes it even more important to me to give each of the sisters their own arc. We don’t have to tell this story in the same white way it's been told so many times before. That's really, really gratifying to me."  v

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