Kavita (Lynette Rathnam) hasn’t given up on reality entirely. She’s just decided to bookmark it for a while. And why not, when there’s another story to live, a warm, rich world lying beyond the curve of each turned page? Kavita has put all of her earthly love into her copy of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, hoping that the novel might infuse her own ordinary life with some bright, rustling romance.
When asked by her best friend Violet (Maryam Fatima Foye) which characters she relates to most, Kavita scoffs at the obvious. “Everyone is Elizabeth in their own life!” she exclaims. She’s referring, of course, to that book’s protagonist: young Elizabeth Bennett, who sails into her complicated relationship with the surly, mysterious Mr. Darcy on a sea of high anxieties and sweeping convictions. Though it may seem a bit ostentatious from page to page, the classic tale of Elizabeth’s wild imagination kindles a youthful enthusiasm in each of us as we follow her down her path.
Great literature has a way of quietly transferring this sense of warmth to our real lives, and if that feeling’s in short supply in theHegira’s production, directed by Danielle A. Drakes, it’s mostly because the Austen universe – particularly all the novels and movies about our modern desire to commune with Jane – has grown a bit swollen this past decade. One might call Kavita’s love for Austen an obsession – and in fact nearly everyone around her does, sometimes repeatedly – but it’s hard to blame her for wanting to inject some excitement into the proceedings. The larger plot in which our bibliophile finds herself is a mostly by-the-numbers romantic comedy, charming and likeable for its whimsical commitment to genre but pretty thin on innovative ideas or absorbing relationships.
Kavita’s dreams, colorful as they are, have their own simple rigidity. She longs to live parallel to Elizabeth, riding that wave of troubled elation we feel throughout “Pride and Prejudice”, and so she is perpetually disappointed by her work, her friends, and modern America. When Violet sets her up with Henry (Julian Elijah Martinez), a shambling but endearing modern gentlemen with more heart than social tact, Kavita pushes back. “I’m getting a strong Wickham vibe from him,” she says, equating Henry with an Austen character.
Desperate for a feeling of romance, she and Violet take flight to England, to tour the sites where more promising suitors would have walked in Austen’s day. And it’s in England that our lonely reader bumps elbows with Thomas (Nick Greek), a handsome, erudite Brit with a penchant for pre-Victorian literature. Is he, finally, her Darcy – the one who can give her an education and honor her passions?
The characters take their time in talking out the big issues, as Elizabeth Bennett would have done. Pop culture comes under appropriate fire, as they discuss how even modern women are typically asked about whether they’re seeing someone before they’re asked about their job. The casting of two African-Americans and one Indian-American adds race to the gender conversation, as Violet wonders whether such an Austen obsession in an Indian girl smacks of colonialism. Henry, too, fears that Kavita’s fascination with Mr. Darcy has led her to a white man beyond his merit.
Thomas may not turn out to be who he says he is, and he had better not, given the time spent detailing Henry’s sweetness and Violet’s wise words on misleading appearances. We see it all coming a mile away, but that’s part of the point. For all that Kavita says she’s using “Pride and Prejudice” as a lens for looking at the world, really it’s more of an escape hatch, a means of dismissal. Only at the end, confronted with one man’s duplicity and another’s show of valiance, is she forced to remove her blinders.
At times it’s no wonder that Kavita dreams of greener pastures, since much of the scenework feels predictable, the staging perfunctory. She can afford to ignore everyone for nine-tenths of the show, too, because at no point does her idealism risk running her aground anywhere truly threatening. But those who can appreciate being wrapped up in fantasy – and who want to believe in magic and personal transformation – will enjoy the chance to walk the grand halls with this often proud, often prejudiced, but ultimately endearing Elizabeth.
Written by Nandita Shenoy
Directed by Danielle A. Drakes
Produced by theHegira
Reviewed by Hunter Styles