21st-Century Austen

University Theatre reimagines a modern Pride and Prejudice


Well, this is certainly not your grandmother’s Jane Austen. With overt sexuality, barebones plotting and updated humor, University Theatre has taken Austen’s beloved classic out for a new spin that, depending on your sensibility, may or may not make sense.

Pride and Prejudice is far and away Austen’s best-known novel. Emerging from this eloquent study of character and society, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy stand out as one of the greatest romances of English literature. Any modern adaptation of a 19th-century novel faces a number of challenges, not the least of which is audience expectation.

Jon Jory’s adaptation is an unapologetically modern play. Fast-paced, but with an ear for the more succulent wording of the original, Jory’s script feels like an extract of a Bach symphony played faithfully on electric guitar.

This version of Pride and Prejudice is considerably better than the Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan adaptation that played at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010, but it still lacks the meditative reflections on ordinary human nature that make Austen’s work so infinitely satisfying. Certain elements of the plot don’t cohere and often seem silly when denied their place among so very many words.

If you are an Austen purist, UT’s production might not be for you. If, however, you enjoy surveying the ways our collective imaginations have interpreted Austen’s work over the past 15 years, UT’s Pride and Prejudice is worth checking out.

As always at University Theatre, there are some very good performances. Michael Malek Najjar’s direction grants loose reign to his young actors, resulting in a number of fun, unexpected takes on character. Katelyn Lewis and Jonas D. Israel are marvelous as Mrs. and Mr. Bennet. And Jerilyn Armstrong creates a modernized Elizabeth Bennet who is easy to identify with.

Alexandra Bonds’ costuming reiterates the decidedly modern take on the story. The women were gowned to perfection with gorgeous Regency lines, and character is suggested with the splash of a non-period purple sari or a garish statement necklace. Bonds’ sartorial vision for the men, though, was less successful. Whereas the tweaks of period and proportion work beautifully for the women, the character/costume link wasn’t apparent in the men and winds up looking strained.

One of the pleasures of this production is watching a well-known story retooled for a college setting. Taken alongside the original, the play is hotter, goofier and more impatient with the class tensions and social mores of the author’s era. If Austen was writing at a time when all human power, connection and sexuality were roiling together in a hermetically sealed pressure cooker, this troupe has completely blown the lid off. — Anna Grace

Pride and Prejudice plays through Nov. 22 at University Theatre; $14-$16.