Pride and prejudice and Christmas

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BETC's production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
Michael Ensminger

As Billy Squier so sweetly sang, “Christmas is the time to say ‘I love you.’” As Christmas is coming up on us faster than a distracted trucker behind schedule to deliver her last trailer-load of Amazon orders before the holidays, it seems only appropriate that I proclaim my love for BETC, the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company.

Don’t worry; this isn’t going to be one of those takeoffs on “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”  Although, there are at least a dozen ways that BETC stands head and shoulders above its peers. Founded and led by Stephen Weitz and his better half, Rebecca Remaly, BETC is comprised of actors, directors, producers and crew members who live, eat and breathe theater. BETC may not be the biggest company or have the most resources, but it punches above its weight with every production. Now in its 13th season, BETC has, in my experience, never put on a bad show. That’s not just incredible, it’s damn near impossible.

BETC’s latest early Christmas gift to theater-lovers could very well become a new holiday classic. While there’s everything to love about Boulder’s and Denver’s annual productions of A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker, The Santaland Diaries, and even Santa’s Big Red Sack, the slate of Christmas standards can always use new additions. With its overabundance of intelligence, playfulness and emotional heft, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley deserves to join the ranks of the perennial December favorites.

A sequel of sorts to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley presents a gathering of (most of) the Bennet sisters on a Christmas sometime soon after the events of the original book. Lizzie Bennet, now Elizabeth Darcy (MacKenzie Beyer) and her husband, Fitzwilliam Darcy (Rodney Lizcano), play host at their estate, Pemberley.

Elizabeth’s older sister, Jane (Eva Balistrieri) and her husband, Charles Bingley (Jihad Milhem), are thrilled to be expecting their first child. Youngest sister, Lydia (Shannon Altner), the one who married George Wickham, arrives sans George and is, as many “baby” siblings can be, a bit of a self-infatuated, attention-seeking handful. Mary (Adeline Mann), the middle Bennet sister and the only one still single, is as-or-more-at-home with books and maps than she is with other human beings. Kitty Bennet, for reasons known only to playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, is referenced but does not make an appearance. Sorry all you Team Kitty members.

In addition to Elizabeth’s sisters, a recently minted, young lord, Arthur de Bourgh (Ben Griffin), finds his way to the Pemberley hearth for the holidays. A bookish, socially awkward lad, Arthur appears to be the Sheldon Cooper to Mary’s Amy Farrah Fowler. Sure enough, sparks fly when they first meet, and soon enough these two hyper-intelligent people are struggling to put pen to paper to express their burgeoning love to one another.

Difficulties, of course, set in. Misunderstandings occur. Farcical circumstances intervene, at one point even being called out as such by the characters themselves. Will Mary and Arthur end up together, Hallmark holiday movie style, or will the play take a more Grinchian turn? You’ll just have to see for yourself, because I’d sooner find a lump of coal in my stocking than spoil such an entertaining night at the theater.

As one would expect and desire, the leads, Mann and Griffin, anchor Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Mann’s portrayal of middle-child Mary is perfectly nuanced. She gives us a Mary equally strong, smart and vulnerable. Griffin matches her scene for scene, which is no easy feat. Arthur could easily be played in a very one-note fashion, but Griffin delivers a layered performance. In what amount to supporting roles, Beyer and Lizcano light up the stage every minute they’re on it.

Having opened Season 13 with an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, BETC’s decision to produce Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley in the same season was a bold stroke of genius. The two plays complement each other in a uniquely unusual and satisfying way. Even if you didn’t catch the earlier play or, frankly, aren’t a fan of Austen’s source material, if you love theater or the holidays or love, you will enjoy the fun-filled, feels-fest that is Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.

On the Bill: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. BETC at the Dairy, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. www.betc.org Tickets are $20 and up. Through Dec. 24.