And it is irreverent. Think men cast as Mary, the plain and prudish Bennet sister, and as the snobbish Miss Bingley. A lot of “intentional water spillage.” Mr. Bingley as near to being a puppy as a man can be without being on all fours.
“People might feel I have desecrated their idols, but, you know, at least I’ve tried to do something interesting,” she said, noting that she had not put zombies in it, and that “I haven’t set it on Mars.” She has discovered, however, that “Janeites” — and she counts herself as one — “are pretty open-minded people; they’re exceptionally generous. Because sometimes I’m taking liberties.”
Ms. Hamill doesn’t see the purpose in adapting a classic unless there is a clear point of view. She found hers for “Pride & Prejudice” in the exaggerated notion of courtship and marriage as a game with winners, losers, referees and exceptionally bad coaches. She applied her own “historical ambivalence about marriage” just as she was arriving at the age when her friends were pairing off around her. She concluded that matches happen between people “whose weirdnesses fit together.”
She looked to the Shakespeare canon for a model. “It’s a romantic comedy, and I was thinking, what romantic comedies do I not hate?” The answer was “Much Ado About Nothing.”
“I thought the big challenge going into it was, everyone knows who gets together,” she said. “I wanted to make a certain story uncertain. How do you make a ‘Much Ado’ where you’re really not sure if Benedick and Beatrice get together?”
She was not afraid to go broad and go silly. There are games galore in her production. (In researching games of the period, she said, she discovered one in which participants simply slap one another in the face. It’s not in her production.)
Bells ring throughout her play: wedding bells; alarm bells; the kind of bells that signal rounds in a prizefight; a chime that sounds, if only in your head, when you connect with your imperfect perfect match. (“It kind of annoys me when both Lizzy and Darcy are supermodels,” she said.)
The clanging insistence of bells became a critical device to her retelling of this classic story about the game of games: the marriage game.
Ms. Hamill grew up in a farmhouse in rural Lansing, N.Y., the fifth of six siblings. She knows how to milk a cow and collect eggs from hens, but she spent much of her time reading (“My parents didn’t believe in TV”), and she joined the theater program in her very small high school. That’s where she gained some sage advice. She was studying to be an actress, but the drama teacher told the girls that if they wanted work, they had to create it.
When she moved to New York, one of her jobs involved writing copy for catalogs. Hundreds of descriptions of jewelry. “You start to just amuse yourself: What else can I say about this pendant?” Early on, she said, “in my mind a serious writer was someone different from me,” and she remained committed to acting. But she wearied of auditions for “silent suffering girlfriend” and “girl in bikini.” That’s when she recalled her old instructor’s counsel. Three-quarters of all plays are written by men, and an overwhelming majority of parts are for men, she said, reeling off statistics she seemed to have learned the hard way. She began to think about creating “new classics.”
In addition to the two Austen novels, she has adapted Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair,” and is at work on Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” and — why not? — “The Odyssey,” for which she wrote a scene, she said, featuring a Cyclops singing to his sheep.
In the meantime, she is vastly amused to be doing a show with Mr. O’Connell in which they get to “bicker and hate each other for hours” — and nightly he must recite a proposal that was written by her.
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