Boston Theatre Wings Review: Bedlam Brings High Style, Grace and Wit to Sense & Sensibility

Publication date: 
January 5, 2018
Jules Becker
Kate Hamill, by her own admission, has felt “a long-standing connection” with Jane Austen. At the same time, the young playwright deeply believes that “the classics belong to everyone.”
The highly inventive troupe known as Bedlam has already demonstrated its own love of the classics with breakout revivals of St. Joan and Twelfth Night (both at Central Square Theatre). Now the delightful New York-based theater company has returned to Cambridge — this time presented by American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center — with a witty, gender-bending adaptation of Sense and Sensibility that resonates with Jane Austen’s enduring insights about women, men and a society that favors the latter largely at the expense of the former.
Bedlam’s Sense and Sensibility, staged with both high style and grace by company artistic director Eric Tucker, opens disarmingly. Cast members frolic shoeless in Alexandra Beller’s jaunty early choreography — to rock rhythm at first and period melody soon after – on a long horizontal stage space that handily serves John McDermott’s cleverly evolving scenic design. During this engaging opening, most of the men remove outer garments while Nigel Gore — a versatile veteran actor familiar to area audiences (Lyric Stage Company of Boston and Shakespeare & Company productions among others) – dons female attire to play savvy and good-natured if overly talkative socialite Mrs. Jennings.
Do not be fooled by the somewhat easy-going early tone, for director Tucker never loses sight of the focal respective struggles of eldest sister Elinor Dashwood and middle sibling Marianne, with Margaret the teenage youngest sister. As in Austen’s 1811 novel, Elinor is more connected with good judgment and Marianne with sensitivity.
Does Austen favor one more than the other? While she may put a premium on Elinor’s sense or greater wisdom, she still appreciates Marianne’s sensibility or fuller emotionalism and seems to sympathize with her vulnerability. It should be no real spoiler alert to say that both of the older siblings will eventually find respective marital fulfillment past all of the hurdles they encounter along the way. What Austen clearly does not favor in this pre-feminist novel — tellingly published anonymously – is a patriarchal British system that did not sufficiently protect the rights of women and guarantee their equality; in this case the rights of the Dashwood daughters to a fair share of their late father Henry’s Norland Park. Their half-brother John, who promised to provide for them, gives way to his wife Fanny’s greediness.
Director Tucker paces this and all of Elinor and Marianne’s challenges so sharply that the cycle of disturbing compromises and concessions that they confront in their quest for financial security and social standing becomes a hauntingly arresting phenomenon.
A stellar Bedlam cast smoothly moves the design’s handsome wheeled doors and windows from scene to scene even as they vividly depict the ordeals and romantic entanglements of Hamill’s vivid adaptation. Maggie Adams McDowell convincingly moves from steely reserve to openness to Edward Ferrars’ genuine caring and love. Jamie Smithson impressively captures Edwards’ authenticity and his less virtuous brother Robert’s insincerity. Jessica Frey’s captivating Marianne has heart-wrenching moments when her feelings are not requited and contrastingly joyous ones when she recognizes that seemingly stoic and bland Colonel Brandon truly loves her and intends to make her happy. James Patrick Nelson catches both the understated side of Brandon and his appealing generosity and inner strength. Nigel Gore is both a hoot and a revelation as socially expert Mrs. Jennings, who means to do well by the Dashwood sisters. Katie Hartke makes Fanny properly manipulative and controlling.
Bedlam returns in March reprising its inspired revival of St. Joan and introducing its own take on Hamlet. After seeing the circle of happiness embellishing Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility, area theatergoers should embrace this sublime company’s entire wide-ranging repertoire no matter when it visits the Hub.

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