Welcome return to Pemberley with Georgiana and Kitty

The cast of the world-premiere Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley includes (from left) Lauren Spencer as Georgiana Darcy, Aidaa Peerzada as Emily Grey, Emilie Whelan as Kitty Bennet, Zahan F. Mehta as Henry Grey, Adam Magill as Thomas O’Brien, Alicia M. P. Nelson as Margaret O’Brien and Madeline Rouverol as Sarah Darcy. Below: Mehta and Spencer find holiday romance in the Marin Theatre Company production. Costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt, Scenic Design by Nina Ball, Lighting Design by Wen-Ling Liao. Photos by Kevin Berne courtesy of Marin Theatre Company

Jane Austen has undoubtedly been visiting with her celestial publisher to check on the status of her earthly estate. Over the years, she has seen her cultural clout grow and grow, with movies, novel sequels, themed weekends and generation after generation of new Austen fans clamoring for more. Among the most interesting of the offerings related to the much-loved 19th-century novelist created in the more than 200 years since her death are the Christmas at Pemberley plays by San Francisco playwrights Lauren M. Gunderson and Margot Melcon.

Locally, we saw the post-Pride and Prejudice Christmas at Pemberley series begin in 2016 at Marin Theatre Company with Miss Bennett (read my review marintheatre.org) and continue in 2018 with The Wickhams (a sort of below-stairs/Downton Abbey take). Now, what has become a trilogy, concludes with Georgiana and Kitty. The genius of the trilogy is that it essentially covers one Christmas holiday but doesn’t actually require you to have seen the other installments (or read Austen, for that matter) – but your enjoyment and appreciation will be enhanced if you have.

This third chapter is the most audacious of them all if only because it takes the greatest liberties with Austen by imagining what the five Bennett sisters, their husbands and children will be doing 20 years after this initial holiday gathering. Not to give anything away, but the future for these characters involves bold moves for womankind, enduing female friendship and consistent breaking of women’s societal restraints – all within a warm holiday glow and amid boisterous (sometimes contentious) familial affection.

We didn’t actually get to meet Kitty Bennett in either of the other two plays, so it’s lovely to see the youngest Bennett finally get her moment in the spotlight along with her BFF, Georgiana Darcy, sister of Fitzwilliam Darcy, husband of Kitty’s sister Lizzy.


There’s great excitement in the house because of – what else? – boys. Georgiana (Lauren Spencer) has been corresponding with Henry Grey (Zahan F. Mehta), a potential beau, for almost a year, and she has impulsively invited him to visit Pemberley at Christmas. He arrives, smitten and tongue-tied, in the company of his friend Thomas O’Brien (Adam Magill), who immediately sparks with the vibrant Kitty (Emilie Whelan). But this double romance quickly skids to a halt when Henry fails to pass muster with Georgiana’s domineering brother, Darcy (Daniel Duque-Estrada), whose self-imposed duty to protect his sister makes him overbearing and obnoxious.

The great thing about all the Pemberley plays is how they play with formula – calculated through both Austen and holiday romance equations – and still come up with something that is highly enjoyable, smart and full of real charm and warmth. Gunderson and Melcon honor Austen and write characters who defy expectations of the 19th, 20th and 21st century varieties. The holiday aspect wouldn’t be out of place in a Hallmark movie, but there’s an intelligence and spirit at work here that far exceeds all the usual, sappy trappings.

Performances are bright and focused in director Meredith McDonough (who also helmed Miss Bennett five years ago), and if some of the characters seem to be extra set dressing (on Nina Ball’s stately estate set), that is rectified when the action shifts ahead two decades and we meet a vivacious new generation of Darcys, O’Briens and Greys.

Austen would no doubt love to see the triumph of some her women characters as envisioned by Gunderson and Melcon, whether it’s the successful balancing of family and work life by one or the artistic success of another as she makes great inroads in a world wholly dominated by men. She may also love that even in the future, Mr. Darcy is a well-meaning ass who would do well to listen to his wife, who is seldom, if ever, wrong.

It’s a little bit sad that Kitty and Georgiana is the final chapter in the Christmas at Pemberley trilogy, but here’s hoping that Gunderson and Melcon continue to make such savvy, satisfying theater.

Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley continues through Dec. 19 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $25-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.

Campo goes seriously sci-fi with Hookers on Mars

Hookers on Mars 1
Lauren Spencer (left) is Chima and Davia Spain is Fresca in the world premiere of Star Finch’s H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually), a Campo Santo production at American Conservatory Theater’s The Rueff. Below: Spencer (left) and Jasmine Milan Williams as Apple. Photos courtesy of Campo Santo

What’s the last great work of dramatic science fiction you saw on a stage? Maybe you’ll have to get back to me on that one. Sci-fi, while stellar (in every sense) in comics, games, books, big screens and small screens, has not generally been a successful theatrical genre. Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams all neglected to set any of their dramas in space, which does seem a shame.

For whatever reason – maybe it’s just too much a suspension of disbelief to be in the same roof with actors pretending to be in space, in the future, etc. without feeling a kitschy ’70s flashback – sci-fi will likely remain successful outside the theater. But then again there’s H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually), a world-premiere play by Star Finch now receiving its world premiere from Campo Santo, a company that has faced some bumps in recent years but is managing to celebrate two decades of producing new plays by – what else? – producing an intriguing new play.

From its title, you might think H.O.M.E. is a sci-fi romp along the lines of Barbarella, and you’d be entirely wrong. San Francisco native Finch is a serious dramatist whose writing has depth, beauty and a muscular poetry to it. Early on in this simply but powerfully staged production, it becomes clear that if Finch wanted to set a play under the sea (and this one partly is), you’d gladly follow her and find a real connection to her story. In other words, she can take the outlandish and make it feel entirely human and lyrical.

Director Sean San Jose works with set designer Tanya Orellana, video artist Joan Osato and lighting designer Alejandro Acosta to create a believably futuristic world without being cheesy about it. A sleek metallic grid holding video screens serves as the streets of Oakland, where main character Chimama Magdalene Union (Lauren Spencer) is putting her life as a prostitute behind her to travel to Mars, where her sister (Britney Frazier as Isla) is raising the son (Micheael Wayne Turner III as Sante) she gave up many years before. We don’t have to know what exactly happened to the world that has led us to this point where Google pretty much runs everything on Mars and the United States is systematically auctioning off states to China and Mexico. Believing in a bleak, corporate-controlled future isn’t much of a stretch.

The fantastical elements here, from the on-face computer screens worn on Mars to the notion of teleporting humans from below the ocean beyond the Golden Gate Bridge to Mars, are taken at face value as part of everyday life, so even when the story is deeply in the sci-fi realm, there’s still a strong human focus.

Hookers on Mars 2

That comes from Finch’s writing as well as from the superb central performance by Spencer as a smart, passionate woman who is in deep contemplation about what it means to be a woman, a mother, a human. Her closest friend is fellow prostitute Fresca (Davia Spain), who has chosen to live life as a woman and with whom she tangles over issues of what defines womanhood. They may fight, but their bond is strong, and that is true of the other characters as well – there’s a potent sense of connection, even through the vastness of space.

Isla, who is given ferocity with shades of vulnerability by the stunning Frazier, has done what she needed to do to succeed in life and serve as mother to her nearly 20-year-old nephew, a young man full of questions and passions he doesn’t quite understand (and Turner’s performance conveys all of this with a poignant ache). She is attempting to bring her sister to Mars so that she can tell Sante the truth of his birth, but all kinds of complications could interfere with that revelation and, Chima hopes, a sort of re-birth for herself and her son.

What the theater can bring to science fiction, and what Finch does so beautifully here, is keep everything on a human scale. When Sante ventures off the proscribed Martian path, he meets a dancer (Jasmine Milan Williams as Apple), and just the fact of their meeting and having an actual conversation beyond the usual screens, is a profound experience. Mortality is also a heavy presence here, and one character wonders if you die on Mars if your soul will still know where to go.

At only about 90 minutes, H.O.M.E. packs a lot into a brief but potent experience that is ultimately less about its science fiction elements (fascinating though they are) and more about its universal human truths.

Star Finch’s H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually) continues through July 10 at American Conservatory Theater’s The Rueff in the Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25. Visit www.brownpapertickets.com for tickets.