Sun Mee Chomet conducts comedy in Jungle Theater’s Miss Bennet | Theater Review by Anne Holzman (Winter 2020 issue)
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly, Scripted by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, Jungle Theater, Minneapolis ~ November 20 through December 29, 2019
The plush, ornate Jungle Theater offered the perfect setting for the Christmas comedy cocktail Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, at once a literary tribute to the enduring charms of Jane Austen and a hilarious interrogation of the many Christmas behaviors we Americans have inherited from Victorian England.
Let’s start with the poor pine/ spruce looming at center stage, introduced by Lizzy Bennet (played by the versatile Sun Mee Chomet) as the latest fashion in Christmas decorations from Germany, and endlessly remarked upon throughout the play. Lizzy, the Elizabeth Bennet protagonist from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, feels she must establish herself as mistress of her husband’s estate, a question of setting fashions as well as managing servants.
The opening pushback from her husband concerning whether a tree belongs in a living room continues to plague her all evening in Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s clever, insightful script. Staging under director Christina Baldwin doesn’t miss an opportunity to react with shock at the strange sight.
Seasonal irony abounds. The title character in the play just happens to be named Mary, but she’s not the one giving birth. Rather, she is the bookish sister, socially awkward to say the least, not at all in search of a husband but longing to see the world. “Can one live a large life in mind alone?” Mary asks at the beginning of the play. The question seems comically irrelevant, as largeness of life clearly surrounds a family as wealthy —- not to say ostentatious —- as the Bennets.
Though an unpregnant virgin, our Mary does have a pregnant sister —- the eldest of the five Bennet sisters, Jane, who, as she lumbers onstage, will clearly be going into labor any minute now. Apart from a subplot-resolving arrangement to have the youngest sister, Lydia, become the baby’s nanny at some future time, the pregnancy and birth stay amusingly on the margins of the Bennet family drama. If Christmas was ever about the birth of Christ, you certainly wouldn’t know it from watching this play.
What it’s really about, which we always knew in our hearts, is sibling rivalry. Lizzy, the newly-married mistress of Pemberley, must manage her warring sisters and their all-too-human spouses, plus the perennially peripheral Anne DeBourgh (Anna Hickey), who is about to get jilted for the second time in her fictional career as she competes with Mary for the devotion (and the inheritance by marriage) of her cousin Arthur DeBourgh (Reese Britts).
Lizzy’s husband, Fitzwilliam Darcy (James Rodriguez) is no help at all, a straight man throwing curveballs as he spills secrets, misses nuances, and dismisses the excitement of impending parenthood as “common” —- each time leaving Lizzy behind to clean up the mess.
For sheer comic panache, young Lydia (Andrea San Miguel) outdoes all her rivals, throwing herself at the clueless DeBourgh and cleverly savaging her sisters. San Miguel’s wide, devilish grin seems to be everywhere as she flits about the stage, getting into the faces, and sometimes the laps, of characters who are rather more comfortable with a little refined personal space.
The male leads, too, revel in one-dimensional comic roles. So Chomet’s role as Lizzy requires knitting together these disparate characters, her reactions on stage subtly guiding our reactions as viewers to make the wacko plot add up in the end. Her affectionate relationship with the giant Christmas tree at center stage somehow explains her ability to keep her family from tearing itself apart. And Chomet has perfected the frozen-face timing that allows the audience an interval of laughter before the clever language resumes on stage.
The script by Gunderson and Melcon mimics Austen’s language while allowing flexible character development. American actors must resort to a few Britishisms in order for the jokes to make sense, but the Jungle cast didn’t get too wrapped up in accents for their Minnesota audience. The delivery of the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice, concerning the necessity of marriage, blossomed with deadly perfume as the play reached its climax, sort of, in a slant-told Victorian manner.
It is to be hoped that, like indoor trees and sibling rivalry, the Jungle’s Austen tributes will become an enduring Christmas tradition.