The Jungle’s ‘Miss Bennet’ is smart, romantic and engaging; ‘Curious Incident’ at Mixed Blood

Photo by Dan Norman
A scene from the Jungle's "Miss Bennet" featuring Christian Bardin as Mary and JuCoby Johnson as Arthur de Bourgh.

The Jungle’s first holiday show, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” has “Huge Hit!” written all over it. It’s so smart, romantic, funny and engaging you’d have to be the worst Scrooge ever to resist its charms. Which include, in no particular order, a witty script by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, who know their way around Jane Austen; Sarah Bahr’s lovely period costumes and warm, inviting scenic design; a diverse cast Austen never would have imagined, but we celebrate; and impeccable, imaginative direction by Christina Baldwin.

Inexplicably, “Miss Bennet” is Baldwin’s directorial debut. After years of collaborating with The Moving Company, formerly Theatre de la Jeune Lune, she’s a natural. Baldwin brings physical comedy, even slapstick, into the story, something seldom seen in the world of Jane Austen adaptations and sequels, which can be overly formal and mannered.

“Miss Bennet,” a work of fan fiction, picks up a few years after “Pride and Prejudice” leaves off. (Familiarity with “P&P” is helpful in understanding some of the references but not essential to enjoying the play.) Elizabeth née Bennet (Sun Mee Chomet) and Fitzwilliam Darcy (James Rodríguez) are happily ensconced at Pemberley, the ancestral Darcy estate. Elizabeth’s sisters Jane Bingley (Adia Morris) and the still-unmarried Mary Bennet (Christian Bardin) have arrived for the holidays, and Lydia Wickham (a hilariously over-the-top Kelsey Didion) is on her way. Kitty Bennet is “in London with an aunt” and doesn’t appear. (You can almost hear the playwrights say, “Too many sisters!”) Jane is accompanied by her husband, Charles Bingley (a boisterous Sam Bardwell).

Mary is bookish, pedantic and tired of being invisible. “Can one live a large life in mind alone?” she wonders near the start of the play. Enter a new character invented by Gunderson and Melcon: Arthur de Bourgh (JuCoby Johnson), distant relative to Lady Catherine de Bourgh and heir (by English law) to Rosings, the de Bourgh estate. He’s bookish, pedantic and socially awkward. Will Mary and Arthur get together? Of course they will. What’s fun is watching it happen despite missteps, misunderstandings, misplaced notes and the appearance of Ann de Bourgh (Anna Hickey), daughter of the recently deceased Lady Catherine, no longer weak and sickly but imperious and demanding.

The whole cast is perfect, and everyone seems to have a splendid time. Rodríguez is a special delight. We’ve formerly seen him in darker roles – tormented cowboy, rapist, killer for hire. Here he’s a dashing Darcy in knee boots and tails. Chomet is luminous and enchanting as Elizabeth. Johnson keeps proving he can play anyone, from smooth scam artist (Paul in Theater Latté Da’s “Six Degrees of Separation”) to nerdy Arthur. As Mary, the heroine of this story, Bardin holds the center of the play with confidence, and we root for her. We want her to be happy. What Austen didn’t tell us about Mary, but Gunderson and Melcon do, is that she’s a dreamer, and hungry for adventure. Her sisters may be content with their husbands and estates, but Mary wants the world.

There are some 21st-century touches throughout the script that jangle a bit. Elizabeth (whose sister Jane is pregnant) describes Darcy as “quite enthusiastic in the pursuit” of a family, which would have shocked Jane Austen. The men – Darcy, Bingley and de Bourgh – talk freely about relationship problems. At one point, Bingley tells a befuddled Arthur to “stop and breathe.” There’s a focus on the freedom to choose that Austen would have found unfamiliar.

But we quibble. “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” is two hours of eye and ear candy. You’ll be pulled in, tickled, cuddled and made to feel as if the world is a pretty great place after all. Who could ask for more from a holiday play?

“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” runs through Dec. 30. FMI and tickets ($35-45). Some performances have already sold out.

The picks

Tonight (Tuesday, Nov 21) and tomorrow at the State Theatre: The Hip Hop Nutcracker. For its third run through the Twin Cities, this popular holiday show moves from the Ordway to the State. Maria-Clara and her Nutcracker prince travel back in time to the moment when her parents first meet in a nightclub in Brooklyn. With a cast of a dozen dancers, interludes remixed and reimagined by DJ Boo, and an on-stage electronic violinist. Guest MC Kurtis Blow will perform a warm-up set and rap the introduction. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($28.50-$68.50). Buy in person at the State Theatre ticket office, save on fees.

The Hip Hop Nutcracker
Courtesy of the Ordway and Hennepin Theatre Trust
The Hip Hop Nutcracker will be presented tonight and tomorrow night at the State Theatre.

Wednesdays through Sundays at Mixed Blood: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” The Broadway version of Simon Stephens’ Tony-winning play based on Mark Haddon’s novel came to the Orpheum last year around this time. This is the Mixed Blood version, directed by founding artistic director Jack Reuler: a far simpler, more direct production, performed by an inclusive cast and all about serving the community. The 10 a.m. performance on Nov. 29 is especially for audience members who are both deaf and blind, with one-to-one interpreters. FMI and tickets ($25 for guaranteed admission; free through Mixed Blood’s Radical Hospitality). Ends Dec. 3.

Saturday at the Walker: Choreographers’ Evening 2017. What’s happening in dance in Minnesota right this minute? Each year for more than 40 years, the Walker has answered that question with its Choreographers’ Evening, a sampler of work by established and upcoming Minnesota choreographers. Curated by Megan Mayer, this year’s evening features (among others) Gabriel Anderson, Charles Campbell with Ted Moore, DaNCEBUMS, Pedro Pablo Lander, Alys Ayumi Ogura, Erin Search-Wells and Vie Boheme. Contains mature content. 7 and 9:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($25/20).

Photo by Gene Pittman, ©Walker Art Center
Choreographers’ Evening 2017 performers, from left: Pedro Pablo Lander, Alys Ayumi Ogura, Charles Campbell, Erin Search-Wells, Vie Boheme, Jordan Rosenow, Gabriel Anderson, and Joelle Fernandez. Not Pictured: DaNCEBUMS Margaret Johnson, Kara Motta, Eben Kowler, Maggie Zepp, and Karen McMenamy; Frankie Hebres; Herbert Johnson III; and Billy Mullaney.

Saturday at the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis: Chad Daniels. The Fergus Falls native, Acme Comedy Company alum and star of the documentary film “I Need You to Kill” will bring his one-man show to the Minneapolis theater in Loring Park. “I Need You to Kill,” which chronicles an improbable American stand-up comedy tour (in English) through Asia with Daniels, Tom Segura and Pete Lee, will be out Dec. 5 on Amazon, iTunes and other streaming services. It looks like fun; here’s the trailer. Doors at 6 p.m., show at 7. Tickets here ($28).

Next Tuesday (Nov. 28) at Westminster Presbyterian: Westminster Town Hall Forum: James Forman Jr.: Crime and Punishment in Black America. A professor at Yale Law School, Forman has clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor, served as a public defender in Washington, D.C., and founded a school serving at-risk and incarcerated youth in the District of Columbia. “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America” is his first book. The New York Times called it “superb and shattering.” Live music at 11:30 a.m., program at noon, food and conversation after. FMI. Free and open to the public; broadcast live on MPR (91.1 FM in the Twin Cities).

Holiday plans

Tickets are on sale now to “A Cornbread Holiday” with Cornbread Harris at The Hook & Ladder on Saturday, Dec. 16. Known to some as Jimmy Jam’s dad, the 90-year-old James Samuel “Cornbread” Harris Sr. still plays weekly and monthly gigs across the Twin Cities, rocking whatever house he’s in with blues, boogie woogie and rock-and-roll piano. It’s an early show so you can do two things (or more) that night. Doors at 6:30, music at 7. Seated show. 21+. Tickets here ($12).

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