Edge Media Network Review: Bedlam's Sense & Sensibility

Publication date: 
December 15, 2017
Kilian Melloy
Bedlam's back in Cambridge, this time at the American Repertory Theater's Loeb Drama Center in Harvard Square. After their head-turning work at Central Square Theater, with shows like St. Joan and two distinctly different versions of the same Shakespeare play, performed in repertory and titled Twelfth Night and What You Will, Bedlam tackles Kate Hamill's stage adaptation of the Jane Austen novel Sense & Sensibility.
In case you missed the now-classic Ang Lee movie version, or never read the book, the story concerns a widow and her three daughters living the edge of poverty. What can a woman do to acquire the means for gracious living but marry well? Not much, evidently, but time is not on their side. Two of the daughters are quickly moving past marriage age. 
Despite the progress of time and their unenviable financial situation the older sisters are each looking to make a match that will provide them with both love and money. For eldest sister Elinor Dashwood (Maggie Adams McDowall) love and lucre seem to arrive in a single handsome package, that of Edward (Jamie Smithson), who also happens to be the younger brother of their flinty and cold-hearted sister-in-law Fanny (Katie Hartke) -- Fanny being mostly to blame for the Dashwood sisters' reduced circumstances.
Marianne Dashwood (Jessica Frey), too, has a beau... two of them, in fact, one an older and seemingly tedious man named Col. Brandon (James Patrick Nelson) and the other an exciting young man named John Willoughby (Benjamin Russell). But both sisters soon find that romance is a perilous thing, and the security they seek may be mere illusion.
This is Bedlam, of course, so perhaps a better unofficial title for the play would be "Nonsense and Sensibility." Everywhere there are comic touches ranging from dry English wit to postmodern left-field humor a la Monty Python. (So British is the style of humor here that the de rigeur actor in drag is present and accounted for -- not just in passing, but in a major role, with Nigel Gore co-starring, to hilarious effect, as verbose matriarch Mrs. Jennings.) 
The troupe attack the material with signature verve (and some intricate choreography by Alexandra Beller). All the set pieces -- chairs, lounges, door frames, windows -- are mounted on wheels, which allows the cast (doing double duty as stage hands) to send various fragments of the set design, not to mention one another, careening across the stage. (This, as you can imagine, makes for some interesting audience participation.)
Freed from the constraints of the proscenium stage and immobile (or mobile in a limited sense) scenic design, director Eric Tucker engages with the audience's imagination to create cinematic effects in which perspectives shift and proportions expand and contract to fit changing moods. At certain times all the characters present for a scene are gradually rolled into a tight little knot -- a comment, surely, on the claustrophobic and gossipy confines of the English upper class of the 19th Century. At other moments the actors are zoomed toward one another with the implication of sudden intimacy, or else whirled around with rambunctious physicality: A pair of young people seated at a table end up spinning across the floor in a way that expresses their first giddy moments of attraction. Whereas a movie brings the camera closer to or further from the action, in this cast the action surges toward the viewer and then recedes. The result is restless and absorbing.
In short, Bedlam take to the Loeb's auditorium (reconfigured so that the audience is seated on either side of a long performance space that's not unlike a soccer pitch) to create... well, bedlam. The play runs two and a half hours, and rare are the passages that don't gallop along full tilt.
This breakneck pace combines with the minimal cast size (many of the actors have to play multiple roles, sometimes pulling off the not inconsequential feat of having intense conversations with themselves) such that you're in constant danger of losing the thread. Who's who, exactly? And who are these new characters who have just shown up? Which swain is this and are we rooting for him or starting to see through his dashing veneer to the rake that lurks beneath? Actually, does it matter all that much?
The scenic design has its problems, too. The long space terminates at either end in a pair of elaborate little dens, replete with paintings and lights and (nonmoving) pieces of furniture. There are only a couple of short scenes that take place in these spaces, but it can be hard to hear what's going on if you're way down the other end. Similarly, when the actors venture out into the house the effect is confusing -- literally, voices in the dark. 
Still, you get the gist, thanks in large part to strong performances, particularly from Frey and McDowell, and while the show's humor is contemporary in tone the costumes, by Angela Huff, are pure period glory. From the bookended musical interludes -- the play starts and ends with some hip-hop dance -- to frequent moments in which the players, tongues in cheeks, gleefully acknowledge that all their fictional, frenetic world is a stage, this is hardly your great-grandmother's Austen. After all, this is Bedlam at work, creating theater that throws the elements of stagecraft into the air and then plays around with how the pieces land.

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