British Invasion 

Theatre Memphis and the University of Memphis pay respects to Austen and Dickens.

Theatre Memphis' current interpretation of Jane Austen's seminal romance novel Pride and Prejudice exceeds three hours. That may be the most useful piece of information I can offer, because if devoting the best eighth of your day to a barrage of class- and gender-conscious barbs traded with restraint in a variety of picturesque settings sounds at all like a little slice of heaven, then the play will probably be a delightful experience. If it sounds like a hellish torture ingeniously conceived by your worst enemies, it's probably that too. Either way, the acting ranges from adequate to excellent, and it's really something to look at.

Multi-award-winning Bill Short has done some of his best work yet, turning Theatre Memphis' tiny Next Stage into a magnificent ballroom illuminated by an antique chandelier. It's a perfect marriage of elegance and practicality that should bring the set dresser yet another Ostrander nomination. Chris Swanson's lighting design could be more adventurous, but it does a fine job illuminating a parade of detailed period costumes by Andre Bruce Ward, TM's often astonishing resident designer.

From the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice, Austen toys with her readers. "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." It seems like the very essence of cloying chick-lit. But imagine those words spoken with complete conviction by Daily Show satirist Samantha Bee, and you'll more easily glean the author's meaning. Jon Jory, the writer and director most closely associated with the Actors Theatre of Louisville, doesn't always know how to frame Austen's wit, and his faithfully wordy adaptation slowly meanders from ill-defined situation to ill-defined situation with little sense of its own shape or purpose.

Director John Rone has assembled a largely first-rate cast that occasionally manages to tame the tasteful unruliness of Jory's script. Jade Hobbs, recently excellent in TM's A Midsummer Night's Dream, is convincingly charismatic as Elizabeth Bennet, whose stormy love/hate relationship with Mr. Fitzworth Darcy (a handsome and able Steven Brown) is what's kept Pride and Prejudice in heavy rotation for almost 200 years.

Jason Spitzer is transcendent in his cringe-inducing performance as Mr. Collins, a long-winded clergyman on the make. He's easily the best thing in a production filled with very good things.

Through March 9th

There's nothing wrong with the University of Memphis' production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood that a wholesale transfer to another theater couldn't fix. The U of M's Main Stage (aka "Big Red") is great for directors, because there's virtually nothing you can't do there. But it's not particularly kind to patrons, who can feel very far from the action, especially when there's an orchestra in the pit. That's particularly troublesome for Drood, a show that requires total audience engagement.

Director Stephen Hancock and choreographer Jay Rapp have created an energetic and engaging take on Rupert Holmes' music-hall ode to Charles Dickens. Rapp's work is perhaps as scholarly, detailed, and complete as anything the celebrated Project: Motion dancer has ever done. David Nofsinger's sets are beautiful to look at; Janice Lacek's costumes border on the breathtaking. The orchestra is tight, and the cast is uniformly fine, with standout performances from Shaheerah Farrakhan (the Princess Puffer), Jared Graham (Clive), and Jason Lee Blank (Bazzard). And for all of this, Drood never quite springs off the stage — even when the actors literally come out into the audience and work the room.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is nothing if not a crowd-pleaser, and the U of M's production aims to please in every way. Still, you want to feel like a part of this show. So for best results, request tickets that are close to the stage.

Through March 1st


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