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THEATER REVIEW Pride and Prejudice: A Virtual Play
by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: Adapted by Christina Calvit from the novel by Jane Austen

At: Streaming online at . Tickets: Free with donation. Runs through: Oct. 4

For starters, what we've got are two wealthy young bachelors, two broke young bachelors, five genteel-poor young misses and one rich old battle-axe—but this is 1813 England, when only male heirs could legally inherit property, making the sole means of acquiring wherewithal ( or "digging for gold" as we call it nowadays ) sufficient to secure a comfortable future was to marry it.

Further complicating the negotiations necessary to remove the obstacles to true love bringing about a satisfactory match ( a "happy ending" in modern parlance ) was the snobbery discouraging fraternization between those boasting long and/or exalted lineage and those claiming pedigrees of more recent vintage.

Jane Austen's groundbreaking novel originated the literary genre today known as the Regency Romance—a label often dismissed by our democratic age as frivolous costume-comedy. Austen's firsthand familiarity with the grim sacrifices engendered by a social and economic system punishing the privileged and underprivileged alike reveals a universe encompassing a multitude of choices faced by individuals of all classes in search of values, identity and lives of, if not precisely joy, then contentment at the very least.

These goals require numerous auxiliary agents—parents, of course, and meddling kin, nosy neighbors and a bevy of servants—all mandating a crowded dramatic landscape. Fortunately, Lifeline Theatre has forged its reputation on big-stories-in-small-spaces arrangements and not even the cinematic live-stream format dictated by current social distancing restrictions can impede the narrative flow of Christina Calvit's compact, but still comprehensive, adaptation.

Director Dorothy Milne and film editor Harrison Ornelas have likewise learned from early-spring experiments in video-staged performance: to prevent confusion arising from double-cast characters viewed in headshot range, each window opens on identification of the person it depicts at that specific time—a narrative device allowing us to witness reactions to the news taking focus, as well as enabling a vox-pop chorus of busybodies to keep us up to date on the expository gossip. Duet scenes employ Lifeline ensemble's several real-life cohabiting couples to permit us a view of ballroom dancers waltzing with their faces outside of the frame, or a husband waving casually at smartphone correspondents over his wife's shoulder. ( Did I mention that the production decor is modern dress-casual? )

It's not all techwizardry, however. The synchronicity achieved by actors after decades of experience swapping dialogue with one another, in a Rogers Park auditorium barely bigger than the "personal closets" ( "bedrooms" to us ) they now occupy, ensures a brisk pace and an intimacy enhanced by the close-up eye contact facilitated by the "asides" incorporated into Calvit's text. When Samantha Newcomb's irrepressible Lizzy asks us what we think of the latest contretemps, it's all we can do not to reply—though if you're watching from your sofa, feel free to roast the aloof Mister Darcy's well-begun but ill-concluded marriage proposal, delivered by Andres Enriquez with affecting aplomb.

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