Ahhhh, the kiss. The kiss seals the deal for Jon Jory’s adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” at Bristol Riverside Theatre. The kiss makes the rest of it less irritating: the stilted dialogue, the static movement on stage, the storytelling that would be – and is – better done as fiction. I won’t say whose lips touch in this kiss, but if you know Jane Austen’s venerable novel you already know the answer.
Not that the kiss is found in the novel. Indeed, Austen’s story respects all the propriety of writing (and behaving) in the early 19th century, and while you’ll find a kiss on the hand in “Pride and Prejudice,” you won’t find the sort of smacker that’s on stage at Bristol Riverside. And that, in short, is the problem with Jory’s adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice.” The kiss on stage is the play’s single compelling emotion.
A lot of people will accuse an errant adaptation of not sticking closely enough to the original. Jory stuck so close, his resolve is impressive; the dialogue is very like the quoted material in Austen’s novel, right down to the last failure to use contractions. That’s fine when you’re reading, and not so welcome on stage, where “Pride and Prejudice” feels heavily starched, even with a cast that handles it so well.
Their characters, in Bristol artistic director Keith Baker’s staging, develop nicely but so formally – constrained mostly by the script – that you worry about them breaking into pieces if they move too unsteadily. Indeed, they sometimes seem to move hardly at all; whenever the full Bennet family, the focus of this work, appears on stage you get the feeling you’re being spoken to not by a group of characters, but from a family portrait.
Jory, formerly the producing artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, also wrote a musical version of “Pride and Prejudice.” (It’s widely believed that Jory also is the person who writes plays, some of them acclaimed, under the name of Jane Martin.) He moves this version along by having characters – generally among of the five Bennet daughters – speak a few lines of exposition that whiz us through chapters at a time. Often, these lines elide the action in the plot, making the stage version of “Pride and Prejudice” a bit like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, in which Yogi Bear talks about a situation, but the major action happens off-screen.
The exception in “Pride & Prejudice” (Bristol Riverside has turned the and into an ampersand) is the dancing at a few balls, which the cast executes nicely to Stephen Casey’s choreography. The players are top notch: the nuanced Hannah Kahn as daughter Elizabeth and as the object of her love-hate relationship, a darkly restrained Michael Halling as Mr. Darcy; Jessica Bedford as the daughter Jane and Topher Mikels as her romantic interest, Mr. Bingley. Robert Ian Mackenzie is the dad and in a meticulously constructed portrayal, Jo Twiss plays the mom. Taking on multiple rolls with singular characteristics are Mary Elizabeth Scallen, Marc Le Vasseur, Jessica Gruver and Grant Chapman; Chapman’s portrayal of an unappealing priest is particularly fine.
For all the outdoorsy charm of the rear-stage set of arches designed by Meghan Jones, the production feels bare-bones stage-front, where most of the action takes place. This story with a broad sweep seems confined out front, as if it’s waiting to blossom like the more promising setting just in back of it. Here’s where filmed versions of “Pride and Prejudice” have an upper-hand: They have fully rendered indoor and outdoor settings that distract us from anything in the script that seems rigid or muted. Theater creates its own magic, of course – that’s what it does best – but it’s tough to hang all of that on one kiss._“Pride & Prejudice” runs through Nov, 24 at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.