A Mobile, Spectacle-Driven Adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility”

Presented by Bedlam
Written by Kate Hamill
Based on the novel by Jane Austen
Directed by Eric Tucker

December 10, 2017 – January 14, 2018
The American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.)
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Review by Gillian Daniels

(Cambridge, MA) Communicating the swift wit of a Jane Austen story is sometimes lost in an adaptation of her work. What better metaphor for the pace and quick gossip of polite society than a stage where all the furniture has wheels and actors move across it with the precision of a ballet? Bedlam, in its own words, “creates works of theatre that reinvigorate traditional forms in a flexible, raw space.” This adaptation is as kinetic and flexible as described, but it works best when its uses its techniques to highlight Austen’s source material, not when they try to rely on special effects.

A simple, polite conversation between Elinor (Maggie Adams McDowell, playing her character with a wonderful balance of hard-nosed dryness and sympathy) and Edward Ferrars (Jamie Smithson) is given its appropriate gravity by the swirl of the table as they speak. Like a camera circling a couple in a film, we get to see each minute movement of their faces and hands, taking on new exaggeration beneath the shifting lights. The quiet restraint of their words is underlined by the attraction bubbling beneath the surface.

I admit, I was nervous going into this adaptation. The opening scene is a disco-inspired dance sequence where the actors allow themselves to be rowdy, loud, and decidedly contemporary in expression. Then they re-costume themselves in the Regency dress and the period’s formal dance steps. Now, their “rowdiness” is instead saved for the excitement of gossip, which acts as narrator and Greek chorus through out the show for the drama of the Dashwoods.

Gossip follows the family as Elinor and her younger, often histrionic sister Marianne (Jessica Frey) lose their home when their father dies. Their lack of funds force them to retire to a small cottage with Mrs. Dashwood (Lisa Birnbaum, who looks very close in age to her “daughters”) and younger sister, Margaret (Violeta Picayo).

 The free movement of the stage is made possible by the lack of props and complex costuming. Almost all the actors play double roles across the cast. I admit, I feared this would cause me some confusion in who was who across each scene, but it mostly creates fertile space for plenty of winking jokes at the audience. The breaking of the fourth wall is very welcome, whether the actors double as horses or simulate a full carriage ride.

On the night I went, I fear not every piece of furniture was well utilized. A chair at one point crashed into an audience member, though the actress in question improv’d a wonderful apology. The staging of certain dream sequences has its impressive moments, but I continued to worry another accident would happen as furniture and bodies engaged in spins and whirls.

Still, this play delighted me by the way it kept its language and themes of sensitivity vs. maturity front and center. It was true in almost every aspect to its source material, perhaps to a fault. The play lags as the original story does when Marianne has a nervous breakdown in the second half. I grew impatient waiting for both her to work through her feelings and Elinor to be honest about her own emotional difficulties.

I can’t rightly say this adaptation will win new fans over to the cult of Jane Austen, but I can say it’s a wonderful romp at just the right moments. People who are already fans of Austen and her film adaptations are in for a wonderful evening out. Those along for the ride will doubtless find something to delight them in the comedy and spectacle of chairs sailing across the stage.

Queen’s Note:
We elected a thin-skinned Nazi to the office of the President who is turning our “democracy” into a fascist, totalitarian oligarchy dominated by the 1%. Trump is a monster. His policies, when he names them, are destructive. His narcissistic behavior is more so.

Congressional “negotiators” released a spending bill that saves the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for Humanities, and National Public Radio until September at which time, the President and his impotent cronies may still cut arts funding. It is ever important to remain vigilant. And, for the love of all that’s sacred, keep creating. If you need help, ask for it. Our existence is our resistance. May the force be with you. – KD

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