Tuesday, July 16, 2024

If You Ask Me: “The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged”

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Austen Fans Target Audience for Playhouse on Park (POP) Play

By Tom Holehan
Connecticut Critics Circle

Fans of Jane Austen who are forever swooning over the exploits of Pride and Prejudice heroine Elizabeth Bennet and brooding Mr. Darcy are the target audience for the current production at Playhouse on Park, “The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged. Looks like there’s a mini Austen festival this month what with Hartford Stage set to open a new version of Pride and Prejudice any minute now.  It’s that rare theatrical occurrence that would make even grumpy Mr. Darcy smile.

Four authors (Jessica Bedford, Kathryn Macmillan, Charlotte Northeast and Meghan Winch) are credited with The Complete Works…, a breezy round-up of Austen’s six major works all presented (sort of) in under 90 minutes without intermission.  At POP, two of the writers are also part of the show.  Macmillan is director with Northeast one of three actors switching hats and shawls while playing an array of characters in record time.  It follows very much in the style of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged, which was popular with audiences in the late 1980s.  Again, the fun was watching a handful of actors playing dozens of roles with the clock ticking away.

At Playhouse on Park just about everything works.  The three actors who, in addition to the regal Ms. Northeast include an exuberant Brittany Onukwugha and a sturdy Shannon Michael Wamser, are all excellent throwing themselves enthusiastically into the fray.  It is directed swiftly on Johann Fitzpatrick’s lovely box set with pristine lighting by Christopher Chambers, period perfect costumes by Barbara Erin Delo and a superb sound design by Kirk Ruby.

So why was I left feeling, “Meh” about the whole enterprise?  I’m a fan of several film versions of Austen’s work, especially Emma Thompson’s glorious 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility for which she won an Oscar.  I realized watching the POP show, however, that I was only familiar with the films having never read any of the novels (my high school was big on Dickens and Hemingway).  I think that puts anyone like me at a disadvantage.  Whether purposeful or not, the play holds us at arm’s length until we catch on.  Some won’t.  I struggled and, again, this is no reflection on the production which generally excels at every turn. Even with a gifted cast, I grew tired of trying to sort out all the characters and boredom set in.

So, it’s a muted response from this critic, I’m afraid, who admires this Austen festival without ever quite embracing the final product.

The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged continues at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Avenue, West Hartford, Connecticut through October 22.   For further information, call: 860-523-5900 Ext. 10 or visit: www.playhouseonpark.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: [email protected]. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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