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.

A non-traditional Vanity Fair bows at ACT

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The cast of Kate Hamill’s Vanity Fair continuing at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater through May 12. Below: The cast includes (from left) Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan as Lesser Pitt, Vincent Randazzo as Sir Pitt and Anthony Michael Lopez as Rose Crawley. Photos by Scott Suchman

For their adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair, writer Kate Hamill and director Jessica Stone do a little bit of cheating. Hamill has decided to liven things up by making this a play about a play about a novel. We are in American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, but on stage, we’re told that our actual location is “Strand Musick Hall,” and the opening number tells us that seven actors are going to play all the parts for the next 2 1/2 hours. So we have a play about a play and actors playing actors playing multiple characters from Thackeray’s sprawling novel about two women – one impoverished and aggressive, the other well-heeled and passive – whose friendship begins in private school and extends through abundant highs, lows, triumphs and humiliations.

This approach is both enjoyably energetic and problematic. The theater-within-theater conceit works well to keep the tone light and fresh and funny, especially when the actors are allowed to play across gender or utilize masks or stick puppets to fill out the parade of characters. The attempt to incorporate musical numbers, featuring original pre-recorded music by Jane Shaw, should serve to bump up the energy and underscore the theatrical nature of the storytelling. But because no one in the otherwise wonderful cast seems comfortable with the singing, the musical numbers become something of a burden.

The other problem with the hyper-theatrical storytelling is that when the story or a particular character’s plight turns serious, or just when we might be fully suspending our disbelief and becoming fully immersed in the plot, the theatrical conceit (or a song) jolts us right back to being more of an observer and less of an emotional participant. That’s a shame because the performances grow and deepen in ways that make us want to care more and observe less.

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In those moments, Vanity Fair is utterly captivating, and the same can be said for some of the lighter moments when the caricatures are spot on. The redoubtable Dan Hiatt, long one of the Bay Area’s most reliably wonderful actors, is the de facto narrator (or Manager, as he’s called) to keep things rolling and add spicy commentary here and there. That’s great, but Hiatt is even better when he gets to play extremes, like the dowager Aunt Matilda, whose ill health and vast fortune make her quite appealing to potential heirs, and the creepy, well-connected Lord Steyne (well named), whose charity comes with much too high a price.

Most of the actors play multiple roles save for the two main characters, Becky Sharp, played sharply (naturally) by Rebekah Brockman, and Amelia Sedley, played with warmth by Maribel Martinez. These two lifelong friends/combatants are subjected to the strain of being an ambitious orphan (Becky) and the impermanence of being a wealthy milquetoast. As Becky maneuvers her way up the social ladder (largely thanks to two characters played by the enormously likable Vincent Randazzo), Amelia finds her station sinking. But what is more defining – character or situation? It’s a question that gets asked a lot (there’s a lot of plot), and the answer may be different for each woman. Brockman and Martinez are superb, and the play is at its best when the two of them are together, whether their characters are sharing sisterly affection for hurling deeply felt insults at one another.

Of the supporting players, Anthony Michael Lopez makes the strongest impression as Dobbin, the soldier who has long pined for Amelia, even during her marriage to the dastardly George (a wily Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) whose faults elude her. Lopez makes Dobbin’s affection so potent it threatens to become the dominant romance, when that title belongs to Becky and her own soldier, Rawdon (a dashing, conniving Adam Magill), who understands what Becky must do to keep their tenuous lifestyle going…until he doesn’t.

Through the vicissitudes of 19th-century life in the court of King George, battles against Napoleon and tumultuous relationships with unreliable men, Becky and Amelia make their choices and suffer (mostly) the consequences, even as they keep on, as they say, keeping on. They manage to do what they can to live the lives they have long imagined for themselves, whether of the nasty or virtuous variety. When this production slows down long enough, we begin to feel the weight of that perseverance, but then we move quickly on, leaving this boisterous Vanity Fair to revel in its appealing surfaces rather than in something more substantive.

Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray continues through May 12 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$130 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.