To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is truth universally acknowledged that a theater company in possession of good fools must be in want of a play.
In the case of Company of Fools, that want never lasts for long. The year 2019 has been busy for the Hailey-based theater group, with four fully fledged stage productions, a new producing artistic director, new outreach initiatives, acting workshops, play-readings and still more.
Company of Fools will wrap up the year with one last play, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” an unofficial sequel to “Pride and Prejudice.”
Written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, the play picks up two years after the conclusion of Austen’s novel and refocuses attention on Mary, the middle Bennet daughter. The bookish and largely unobtrusive Mary remains a tertiary figure for most of “Pride and Prejudice,” but takes center stage here as the titular Miss Bennet.
In 1815, four of the five Bennet sisters—Kitty’s absence is a mystery—gather for Christmas at Pemberley, the home of Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy, the principal characters of “Pride and Prejudice.” All the present Bennet sisters but Mary have wed, but when Darcy’s cousin Arthur de Bourgh arrives as the obligatory “single man in possession of a good fortune,” Mary’s lonesomeness may have met its end.
The eight-person cast features almost entirely familiar faces from “Pride and Prejudice.” The aforementioned Darcy couple (Cassandra Bissell and Neil Brookshire) arrive on the scene, as do the Bingleys (Rachel Aanestad and Orion Bradshaw) and Lydia Wickham (Alexis Ulrich). Darcy’s pre-Lizzie intended, Anne De Bourgh (Natalie Battistone), figures into the drama, bringing along with her the original character Arthur De Bourgh (Chris Carwithen), who fills the role of love interest for Mary Bennet (Kayla Kelly).
For all the temptation there must have been for Gunderson and Melcon to zero in on the Darcys, they wisely resisted and instead give Mary her moment in the sun.
“You could blink or turn an extra page while reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and forget that Mary is among the Bennet sisters,” said Scott Palmer, producing artistic director of Company of Fools and director of this production. “She’s just really undefined. Having this entire cast of remarkably well-defined characters from the Austen universe all circling around a single character that we get to create and that the playwrights have dug into and shaped as interesting and compelling—that’s a really cool opportunity.”
Kelly, assuming the role of Mary, said, “It allows Mary to have a voice, a voice that wasn’t hers before. She’s been written off and overlooked by her family to this point. A lot of plays featuring this sort of archetype—the geeky, the nerdy—do that as well, write them off. But she’s found her voice here. She’s self-assertive and full of life.”
That fact is equally exciting for the other cast-members.
“I really appreciate that these characters who are so well known have been placed in the periphery,” said Bissell, taking on the role of perhaps Austen’s most beloved heroine. “It’s Mary’s day. Yes, we are the characters everyone knows and loves, and hopefully we will honor what people want to see of Lizzie and Darcy, but that’s not the point of this play.”
Palmer admitted that, at first, he gave little credence to “Miss Bennet,” figuring it would be another “flash in the pan,” another hot new play that came and went. He soon realized what a singular and commendable work Gunderson and Melcon had conjured up.
“It reads like Jane Austen,” Palmer said. “They’ve done a remarkable job capturing that voice, that style, that wit and joy, the banter. I think that’s partly why it’s been so successful for the past three years and will probably continue to be one of the most
often produced holiday shows in America.
“It feels literally like you’ve put down ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and you’ve picked up its sequel. They fit together beautifully and the language is very Austen-tatious,’” he said, demonstrating his favor with the pun gods.
Bradshaw expanded his director’s sentiments, noting that this homage to Austen extends beyond the language.
“I feel the playwrights have kept the archetypes intact,” he said. “They stay pretty true to the source material as far as dispositions, virtues, values and such.”
As of last month, Gunderson had more works staged annually in the United States than any other playwright—besides William Shakespeare, obviously.
Melcon, on the other hand, though she had directed a few plays and had known widespread acclaim as a dramaturg, had never written a play before “Christmas at Pemberley.”
The pair blend their expertise to create a charming, loveable, uplifting play that celebrates one of the great writers of the Western canon and—as the Company of Fools cast stressed—is just a whole lot of fun to watch.
All of them emphasized the fact that one need not possess a working knowledge of or even familiarity with Austen’s works to enjoy and appreciate the play, however. Putting the whole thing very succinctly, Bissell said, “It’s a perfect combination: Jane Austen meets Christmas.”
“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” is Company of Fools’ family-friendly holiday show this year, and nicely embodies the spirit of giving and familial love that defines the season.
“It’s all about family, really. It’s all about coming together, new beginnings, finding yourself,” said Chris Carwithen.
One of the ways the theater troupe hopes to spread all this joy and goodwill is through a brand new initiative: a sensory-friendly performance. See the Mountain Express on Dec. 4 to learn more about this unique new offering and the other ways in which Company of Fools is enhancing its community outreach.
For the Austen fans out there—isn’t that everyone?—The Community Library will be offering two “Pride and Prejudice” book discussion groups in conjunction with Company of Fools. The first will take place Wednesday, Dec. 11, and the second on Thursday, Dec. 19. Both are free offerings at the library beginning at 4 p.m. Palmer will join for the second iteration.
Company of Fools is presenting 15 performances of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” between Monday, Dec. 9, and Sunday, Dec. 29. Of those, three are “pay what you feel nights,” including the sensory-friendly and parent and baby nights, one is a reduced-price “Throwback Thursday” offering and one is an educator night. Visit sunvalleycenter.org for details and tickets.