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How Mark Bedard approaches multiple roles in Pride and Prejudice
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
When Mark Bedard was cast in Kate Hamill's stage adaptation of Jane Austen's beloved 19th-century novel Pride and Prejudice, he called his father to share the good news. "His response was, 'Didn't you do that already?'" Bedard says with a chuckle.
The actor had indeed performed in a mounting of Pride and Prejudice in college as Mr. Darcy. But for this production -- which premiered over the summer at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival and is now running Off-Broadway at Primary Stages -- Bedard was tapped for a different role. Make that roles: Mr. Collins, Mr. Wickham, and Miss Bingley.
While the book's central romance between intelligent and outspoken Elizabeth Bennet and pent-up and proper Mr. Darcy remains intact, Hamill (who also plays "Lizzie") has opted for a zany tone, transforming the drawing-room drama into a screwball comedy, much like she did for another Austen classic, Sense & Sensibility. There's lots of slapstick as the eight members of the cast shout, sing, scamper through the audience, and take dance breaks to anachronistic tunes.
"It's obviously hard to take what's in the book and put it on stage and keep it interesting," Bedard says. "Kate's script gets at the heart of the thing. She's good at distilling the essence of a character or a scene and then blowing it up. It's not a stiff, straightforward adaptation. It's fun and a little modern while still retaining a comedy-of-manners core."
Early in rehearsals, director Amanda Dehnert pointed out to the actors that much of the plot is driven by the different ways the characters deal with shame. In Act I, snobbish Miss Bingley, who has designs on Mr. Darcy, gives a speech about what makes a woman accomplished. After she finishes speaking, she slips and falls. "We're really playing with the contrast between shame and the quest for perfection," Bedard says, adding that he knew the laughs would come if he committed to Miss Bingley's pretentious nature. "The key to any good comedy is to treat everything like it's life or death," he says. "The more serious you treat a silly problem, the funnier it will be."
Save for Hamill and Jason O'Connell, who plays Mr. Darcy, the rest of the actors tackle multiple roles and remain visible throughout the show, poised to jump in at any moment. So, for example, Bedard will be on stage as Mr. Collins, step to the periphery, throw on a dress, and turn around as Miss Bingley seconds later.
To give each of his characters a distinct physicality, Bedard went back to the source material and thought deeply about their lives and occupations. Elizabeth's "textbook sociopath" of a brother-in-law, Mr. Wickham, is a solider, so Bedard uses a wide, rigid stance and slightly puffed-out chest. As Miss Bingley, the epitome of a well-bred lady of the period, Bedard shoots for "as close to perfect posture as I can manage." Then there's Mr. Collins, a clergyman and Bennet family cousin who unsuccessfully woos Elizabeth. "Collins is 100 percent a creep but is also completely unaware of it," Bedard says. "That's the trick of playing him. You have to key into that. If he does something creepy, I have to play that, but I also have to play oblivious. Physically, I try to hunch over and hold my arms up, close to my body, sort of like T-rex arms."
Although all of the quick character changes may sound potentially confusing, Bedard says that even audiences who don't know the novel or any of its many screen incarnations will be able to follow the action. That's thanks to Hamill's lucid script, the sparse but precise design, and the cast's ability to delineate each part. "We focused on using movement and gestures in a way that we could almost do the show without costumes and it would still work," Bedard says. "It would still be clear who we're playing."
Top image: Mark Bedard, far right as Miss Bingsley, alongside Chris Thorn, Kate Hamill, and Amelia Pedlow in Pride and Prejudice. Photos by James Leynse.
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