SARATOGA SPRINGS — Professional theater returns to the Spa Little Theatre this weekend and with it comes an adaptation of perhaps the most beloved Jane Austen novel, “Pride and Prejudice.”
Produced by the New York City-based Aquila Theatre, the innovative adaptation stays true to Austen’s biting social satire, wit and unforgettable characters seen in her 1813 novel. A relatively lean cast carries the production.
The familiar story is centered around the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet, who is the daughter of a country gentleman, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, an aristocratic landowner.
Aquila is known for bringing classic works to the stage and has previously presented “1984,” “Murder on the Nile” and “Wuthering Heights,” among others. The New Yorker described its productions as “beautifully spoken, dramatically revealing and crystalline in effect.”
The company tried something new with this adaptation process.
“Normally, I adapt our own theatrical versions of classic books,” said Desiree Sanchez, who is the executive artistic director of the company. “But this [time], I really wanted to get the cast involved in it. So we decided to do it collaboratively.”
Sanchez worked with cast members Elizabeth Belfast, James Counihan, Leda Douglas, Katie Housley, Conner Keef and James Lavender. They started without a script, discussing what parts of the novel were most important and which characters were essential to the story.
“It was an incredible dialogue that we had around that table and a very rich and creative process. It was actually a lot easier in a lot of ways than if I had just done it myself and much more rewarding. So I think as a result, this show is very full and rich and true to the original text, and also very applicable to a modern audience,” Sanchez said.
There were also discussions about casting mindfully, as Sanchez and two of the actors identify as people of color.
“All three of us really feel strongly alongside a lot of our colleagues in the field that it’s no longer okay or constructive to engage in colorblind casting,” Sanchez said. “What I mean by that is you can’t really ask an actor to pretend they’re not of color, that they’re a white character. We had an intense conversation about it and the importance of being mindful about how you cast people so that they can feel genuine in their delivery.”
This adaptation features a mixed-race family and while the dialogue stays true to Austen’s, the company added some dialogue to acknowledge that fact.
The company began touring nationally with the production last fall.
“We’re playing to sold-out houses and every night are getting standing ovations,” Sanchez said. “We’re really happy that that has been the feedback, especially given the experimental nature of the piece,” Sanchez said.
The stop at the Spa Little Theatre is one of the later shows on the company’s touring schedule. For the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, which is presenting the show, the performances mark the return of live theater.
“I think it’s been since the ’80s since we’ve had a professional company in the space,” said Christopher Shiley, SPAC’s vice president of artistic planning. “There’s a long history of professional theater in the Spa Little Theatre, in addition to the community theater and many other programs as well. That’s what we’re excited to be bringing back as well as figuring out how to get those other companies back in down the road.”
The last theater company to perform there was Home Made Theater, which moved out of the space two years ago and has been holding shows at Saratoga Arts’ Dee Sarno Theater. The Spa Little Theatre previously hosted The Acting Company, which was founded by John Houseman and had a summer residency at the theater starting in the 1970s. Actors including Kevin Kline performed there as young students.
SPAC has presented dance and music programs there over the last year or so but theater has been trickier to bring back.
“The Spa Little Theater is an unbelievably charming and beautiful space but is quirky from a production standpoint. There are some challenges, some basic theatrical elements, like fly space, or wing space that don’t exist, that you have to be able to adapt to,” Shiley said.
It made Aquila’s production an ideal starting point.
“The show is adaptable to very different spaces. We can go small and we can go very large with this. The stars of the show are truly the story and the actors,” Sanchez said.
“For us at SPAC, it’s really important to be representative of all the arts. We’ve got, obviously, a ton of musical offerings that we do, and we’ve been doing more literary and culinary arts as well and all the things we do with dance . . . But theater has been an avenue that we haven’t really done much with in our programming, and . . . we want to be a part of bringing [it] to the community,” Shiley said.
Showtimes for “Pride and Prejudice” are 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $39-$74. For more information visit spac.org.