When Sarah Rasmussen became the Jungle Theater’s artistic director in 2015, the Jungle had never done a holiday play. Its fiscal year started in February and ended before Christmas. You can’t just change an organization’s fiscal year overnight. So Rasmussen’s first season as AD began in February 2016 and ended in mid-December.
Her second began in February 2017 and ran through Dec. 30. The reason: “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” the Jungle’s first holiday show.
Written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon (Gunderson was then the most produced playwright in America), “Miss Bennet” is set in the enchanting world of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” two years after the end of the novel. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are happily married, as are Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley. Lydia Bennet, the ditsy one, is wed to dastardly George Wickham, thanks to Mr. Darcy, who has secretly saved her from a life of shame.
The main characters in “Miss Bennet” aren’t any of these. Instead, the play focuses on the relationship between nerdy Mary Bennet and bookish Mr. Arthur de Bourgh, a new character invented by Gunderson and Melcon. (Kitty, the fifth Bennet sister originally in P&P, was cut from the story. Kitty who?)
Directed by Christina Baldwin, beautifully staged, warm-hearted and lively, “Miss Bennet” was a huge hit, playing to 100 percent capacity. Before it ended, people were talking about whether the Jungle would bring it back in 2018.
Instead, the Jungle co-commissioned Gunderson and Melcon to write a second play set in the same time and place as “Miss Bennett,” only downstairs, among the servants. “The Wickhams” is not a sequel but a sidequel (Baldwin’s word). We never see the Bingleys, Mary or Arthur, but we’re led to believe (and are easily convinced) they’re upstairs enjoying the Christmas festivities.
Sun Mee Chomet, James Rodríguez and Angela Timberman return as Elizabeth, Darcy and Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper. Baldwin is back as director. Kelsey Didion reprises her role as Lydia, and Nate Cheeseman joins the cast as Wickham.
Lydia is shallow and Wickham’s a cad. So how can they be the main characters? That would be very un-Austenish. To balance them out, Gunderson and Melcon invented Brian (Jesse Lavercombe) and Cassie (Roshni Desai). Both are servants. He’s been at Pemberley awhile; she’s new, and this job means everything to her. They’ve known each other since they were children. Brian loves Cassie, but not yet in the way she needs him to. If he listened – if he learned – she might easily love him back.
In “Miss Bennet,” Mrs. Reynolds has a minor role. Here she’s elevated to a main character – arguably the main character. She’s the center of Pemberley, its keeper and conscience.
And now we have the makings of a play on par with “Miss Bennet,” true to the world Jane Austen created, with updated sensibilities, expressed most eloquently by Cassie.
Baldwin leads with the same sure hand, though she goes for broader strokes in “The Wickhams.” There are more exaggerated gestures, more silly moments – and more laughs. Because of the tension between Darcy and Wickham, Rodríguez is grumpier here than he was in “Miss Bennet.” Lydia shows signs of maturity, but Wickham is a man of no redeeming qualities. If he had a moustache, he’d twirl it.
While “Miss Bennet” is a direct descendant of “Pride and Prejudice,” “The Wickhams” is two steps removed. Not only does it help to have read P&P (or seen one of the many movies), it doesn’t hurt to have seen “Miss Bennet.” Brian carrying a tree up the stairs makes more sense if you remember that in “Miss Bennet,” Elizabeth surprises Darcy with a decorated Christmas tree. If you don’t know “Miss Bennet,” the reference to “Mr. de Bourgh” will fly over your head. Mentions of Mr. Collins, Georgiana and Longbourne are similarly wasted on those who don’t know P&P.
But these are Easter eggs for Janeites, not barriers to enjoying “The Wickhams.” A witty entertainment with literary roots, it’s a delightful costume dramedy with something to say about what women want and how to treat them, and finding one’s place in the world.
Sarah Rasmussen has real affection for Jane Austen. We saw that in how she directed “Sense and Sensibility” at the Guthrie in 2016. In her choice of “Miss Bennet,” an existing play, for her first holiday show. In her decision to commission “The Wickhams.” So … what’s next? A prequel? A spinoff about Anne de Bourgh? Meanwhile, may we have the recipe for those biscuits with the orangey bits?
“The Wickhams” continues through Dec. 30. FMI and tickets($45-55). Don’t expect an extension; “The Children” opens Jan. 12.
Tonight (Thursday, Dec. 6) through Sunday in Loring Park: Holidazzle. Downtown Minneapolis’ holiday party is in full swing. The city park is lit up and decorated, and the festival is free, all-ages, family-friendly, even pet-friendly (the usual expectations of good manners apply). Free movies on Thursdays and Sundays (tonight it’s “The Santa Clause” at 7 p.m., this Sunday it’s “Cool Runnings” at 5 p.m.). Fireworks on Saturdays (7 p.m.). Free live music, outdoor skating, warming house, meetings with Santa, story time, activities and more. If you want to spend some money, you can eat, drink and shop an abundance of locally made foods, beverages, gifts and crafts. FMI including directions, hours, schedule, vendors and Metro Transit ride passes. Through Dec. 23.
At the Highland Park Community Center: Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company: “The Chanukah Guest.” Jenna Zark’s holiday hit – an MJTC commission based on the award-winning book by Eric Kimmel – returns for another run. Most performances are on the weekdays, but a second (3 p.m.) performance has been added this Sunday, so now’s the time to catch it. Kids (and grown-ups) love watching Bubba Brayna make latkes for a bear. Kim Kivens, Bradley Hildebrandt and Josh Bagley star; Craig Johnson is the director. FMI and tickets ($20). Closes Dec. 18.
Saturday at the Colin Powell Center: 26th Annual Women’s Art Festival. More than 130 women artists will show and sell their work – paintings, photographs, pottery, jewelry, textiles, body care products, glass, leather, mixed media and more – at this daylong festival. Begun in 1992 by Sue Zieke, first held at Spirit of the Lakes church, then the Midtown YWCA, the festival moved to the Colin Powell Youth Center in 2014, with more room for artists and free covered parking in the Wells Fargo ramp a block away. With live music by women performers and a women-owned coffee shop with food, beverages and treats. 2924 4th Ave. S., Minneapolis. 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. FMI. Free. Pssst: Singer and actress Thomasina Petrus (“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”) makes fabulous cashew brittle. You’ll find it there.
Sunday at the Ordway Concert Hall: Liquid Music: Third Coast Percussion: Perpetulum. It’s a big deal when you’re part of birthing a new work by Philip Glass, the immensely influential American composer. The SPCO’s Liquid Music is a co-commissioner of “Perpetulum,” Glass’ first work for percussion – hard to believe for someone who’s written so much music for so many instruments over so many years, but true. The centerpiece of Sunday’s highly anticipated concert, “Perpetulum” had its world premiere in Chicago in November, where Chicago Tribune critic Howard Reich hailed it as “immensely appealing” and filled with “a sense of joy.” Third Coast will also perform new work by Devonté Hynes, a multi-instrumentalist/composer Glass chose to play four of his “20 Etudes” at the Kennedy Center earlier this year. Wondering what “Perpetulum” means? Glass made it up, combining “perpetual” and “momentum.” 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30/25).
Monday at the Guthrie: Kevin Kling: “Tales from the Charred Underbelly of the Yule Log.” Settle in for an evening of warm, hilarious, tender, sometimes bittersweet stories of Minnesota Christmases past with our great resident storyteller. Drawn from his childhood memories of family gatherings and traditions, Kling’s celebrated one-man show is never the same twice. With Dan Chouinard, Simone Perrin and the Brass Messengers. 7:30 p.m. on the thrust stage. FMI and tickets ($28/23). A book signing at the Guthrie store will follow.