Talkin' Broadway Review: Sense & Sensibility

Publication date: 
December 18, 2017
Author: 
Josh Garstka
The music starts, and a troupe of ten actors breaks into the funky, uncool dance moves you'd spot at a cousin's wedding. It's an oddly anachronistic start to the evening, but the gaiety quickly transitions to a sprightly country dance, and the show sets its roots firmly in 18th century England. From there, the Bedlam theater company provides a new spin (literally) on one of Jane Austen's most beloved novels that shows the story is contemporary enough on its own merits. This Sense & Sensibility, which opened this past week at the American Repertory Theater, lures us into a dizzying world where pursuing your innermost desires can turn everything topsy-turvy.

Bedlam's reimagining, led by director Eric Tucker, takes its cue from the sensibility half of Austen's title. The production is a stylish exercise in choreographed merriment where the minimal furniture and set pieces are all on wheels. The actors roll this way and that across the narrow stage, often propelled by their fellow cast members. Though each movement is meticulously planned (thanks to choreographer Alexandra Beller), there's an unavoidable spontaneity as we watch to see if everything lands in the right place. (On press night, one actress accidentally rolled into the front row.) More than a gimmick, Bedlam's free-wheeling production adds a joyous energy to Austen's tale of love and marriage, while avoiding the fussy Masterpiece Theatre trappings that usually accompany Austen.

I should confess that I haven't read the original novel, though I do enjoy the 1995 Ang Lee film starring and written by Emma Thompson. As something of a neophyte to this world, I was impressed by playwright Kate Hamill's ability to keep the storyline clear, even as the ten actors double and triple up on characters, sometimes switching (delightfully) within a single scene. Hamill's adaptation has an easy wit that pairs well with Tucker's ever-moving circus of players. Hamill keeps her retelling light-hearted; this is not a ponderous or weighty interpretation of Jane Austen. Some minor characters are broadly etched, including the bratty Fanny Dashwood, an insouciant Robert Ferrars, and various elders who squawk their lines like they dropped in from the "Peanuts" comic strips. But the core relationships are more grounded, presented with a sincerity that the sensible Elinor Dashwood would admire.

When their father dies, the Dashwood sisters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, are not entitled to the inheritance, and so the family must relocate from their elegant estate to more modest lodgings. In their new social circle, the older sisters find suitors in the sweet but awkward Edward Ferrars (for Elinor) and the suave, cultured John Willoughby (for Marianne). Meanwhile, Marianne also entertains the affectations of Colonel Brandon, who falls for her at first glance, but she finds him too old and lifeless. Of the ten-person ensemble, which is uniformly strong, James Patrick Nelson is particularly good as the Colonel. His idea of romantic talk ("It has rained very hard recently") is perfect in his bone-dry delivery. But when he hears the rumor Marianne is engaged to another man, Nelson's near-wordless reaction is heartbreaking.

In Bedlam's production, the smallest gestures are magnified. Even a thwarted kiss has an exciting frisson. In our introduction to Elinor, she and Edward Ferrars sit across from each other writing correspondence. When their words run out, their fellow actors spin the table and its occupants round and round, so that we understand the magnitude of their unspoken feelings hidden beneath their outer pleasantries. And the audience, seated on both sides of the stage like a tennis match, is intimately connected to the drama. There's no privacy from the whispers and babble, with us watching and the cast hovering just off-stage, peering through windowpanes at the action. We're reminded of how strictly the social order is enforced through private and public gossip. At one party, the guests tick off a list of recent engagements, loudly proclaiming how much money each betrothed brings.

As the siblings at the center of it all, Jessica Frey and Maggie Adams McDowell complement each other nicely as Marianne and Elinor. Though Marianne is the more impulsive sister and Elinor more proper, they learn to be more like each other as the story develops. The way Hamill articulates each word packs a punch. When Marianne tells Elinor she is "reserved," it registers as a stinging insult. To be reserved is the opposite of everything she wants and feels, up to that point. But McDowell's Elinor, practical to a fault, can't help that she is firmly in control of her speech and bearing. Until the end, that is, when she is overcome by a long-awaited romance coming true.

Elinor's surprise at her own emotions is touching. "You do not suppose I've ever felt much," she says to her sister, but we know her feelings have been there all along. We've seen them already, brought to life by the fluid motion of Bedlam's swirling production. This Sense & Sensibility gives its characters the push to go wherever their feelings take them.
 

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