Given Pittsburgh Public Theater opened their season with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it’s a bold choice for Cross-Stitch Theatre Company to follow suit. Not only is Pride and Prejudice their opening show, it’s the inaugural production for this new theatre company. Cross-Stitch is founded by two women, Amy Dick and Marsha Mayhak. The company is committed to addressing the gender imbalance in theater with a “particular emphasis on female artistic expression.” It’s a laudable goal, and the founders don’t stop to punctuate, already delivering in this first show.
Jane Austen hardly risks neglect in the literary canon. However, Pride and Prejudice offers some landmark roles for women, particularly Elizabeth Bennet, the focal point of the five marriage-age Bennet sisters the story follows. Lest we fall into universal praise, some female characters do skew to the silly, particularly the two youngest Bennet sisters, Lydia and Kitty. Elizabeth Bennet is played by company cofounder Marsha Mayhak who evokes Keira Knightley as Lizzy in her 2005 on-screen performance.
Cross-Stitch’s other co-founder, Amy Dick, takes the helm as director. Dick wisely keeps set design to a minimum. Simple, easy prop shifts keep the show’s momentum flowing while enabling quick visual cues as to whether we’re in the home of the Darcys, at Mr. Bingley’s estate, or on the property of Lady Catherine. Dick has the actors stay in character during set changes, adding a nuance to their performance. Mary (Sara Katrenich) as the plainest of the Bennet sisters bears the brunt of set change demands with her usual put-upon stoicism, while the titled Lady Catherine (Stacey Rosleck) deigns to help.
In a study of contrast, Rosleck plays both Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine. A pink and gold brocaded overdress transitions the prattling, lower middle-class Mrs. Bennet to the aristocratic Lady Catherine, who proudly proclaims she’s “celebrated” for her “frankness and sincerity.” Interestingly, both women share a willful ignorance of their own attitudinal compass, and Dick’s choice to have the same actress play them both highlights that commonality. Mrs. Bennet continually utters her contempt for Mr. Darcy. Yet, she is not aghast at her own about-face, and in fact, seems unaware of it when Lizzy announces their engagement. Mrs. Bennet immediately titters that Darcy is “such a charming young man.” Lady Catherine possesses an over-inflated sense of self-worth that blinds her, perhaps willfully, to the fact she is generally despised. In her immediate circle, only newcomer Charlotte Collins (Sara Katrenich, who in another dual casting plays both Mary and Charlotte) allows herself a quick jet of astonished eyebrows at the blatant kowtowing to Lady Catherine.
Dick could have improved on the gradation of facial cues to reveal subtext, particularly among the men. Mr. Darcy (Christopher S. Collier) is completely stony-faced and is only granted the right to smile in the penultimate scene. It’s no wonder Elizabeth is caught off-guard by his initial marriage proposal, which a cactus could deliver with more pep. While Cross-Stitch is committed to female artistic expression, male characters need development to make them a worthy match to their strong female counterparts.
Dick struggles with the fine line between subtlety and nonexistence. For instance, Jane Bennet (Kaitlin Kerr) is so demure as to be bland and demonstrates such unrequisite goodness she’s utterly boring. Nor does Jane ever seem passionate about Mr. Bingley, either in his presence or when she’s supposedly devastated by his abrupt departure.
Pride and Prejudice is an ambitious and promising start for Cross-Stitch Theatre Company as a new local contributor. Regarding Darcy, Jane proudly quips to Lady Catherine that “He is a gentleman, and I am a gentleman’s daughter. So far we are equal.” Cross-Stitch’s commitment to “female-driven theater” reminds us that gender representation in theater, be it on the stage or in leadership roles, still requires more female participation to be equal. One eagerly anticipates Cross-Stitch helping to shift that balance. Jane Austen would be proud.
Tiffany Raymond has her PhD in 20th Century American Drama from the University of Southern California where her research focused on labor and social protest theatre. She also has two master’s degrees, one from the University of Southern California and one from the University of Tennessee. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her family. In addition to being a theatre nerd, she’s also a tech geek, avid reader and occasional half-marathon runner.
Categories: Archived Reviews