WBUR Review: Bedlam's 'Sense & Sensibility' Skitters and Spins Delightfully with Austen at the A.R.T.

Publication date: 
December 15, 2017
Carolyn Clay
Marriage deals on wheels might be an apt description of Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility. The former, of course, come courtesy of Jane Austen, who famously wrote elsewhere: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The latter are appended by the New York-based theater troupe Bedlam, whose delightfully exuberant 2014 staging of Austen’s 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility — in a frisky adaptation by Kate Hamill, skitters and spins about the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center playing space (through Jan. 14) like the pieces and parts of some love-racked pinball machine.
Between director Eric Tucker, choreographer Alexandra Beller and scenic designer John McDermott, the Bedlam creative team has exploded the genteel accouterments of Regency England only to push them around, putting everything from French windows, doors and trellises to chairs and sofas on casters. The various, mostly white set pieces and furnishings, often with actors perilously attached, are propelled or spun around the playing space as seemingly recklessly as the more emotive characters fling their hearts.
But however fast the wheels move them, the characters, whether enduring personal heartbreak or public humiliation, fraught social encounters or painful attitude adjustments, are never out of range of the gossips whose oft-misinformed whispers impel Austen’s story as certainly as the author’s morality, romanticism and sly, satirical humor do. And how much easier it is to eavesdrop when one can simply move one’s dining-room chair — sometimes like a rocket, sometimes at a slow, sneaky crawl. It’s an ingenious concept that keeps Austen moving without, despite some broad caricaturing, leaving caster ruts on her heart.
For those Janeite Luddites who have somehow dodged Austen’s novel, the 1995 Ang Lee film, the 2008 "Masterpiece" miniseries and whatever other incarnations (with or without zombies) may exist, the late 18th-century set Sense and Sensibility centers on siblings who embody the opposing temperaments of the title. Miss Elinor Dashwood is all propriety and self-possession, whatever her private sufferings; younger sister Marianne Dashwood is a proud proponent of letting it all hang passionately out.
When their father dies and his son from a first marriage inherits the family’s estate in Sussex along with its pocketbook, the newly impoverished sisters must seek single men, preferably in possession of a good fortune, in want of a wife. But as Lysander observes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the course of true love never did run smooth — especially when there are injudicious entanglements, monetary musts and rumor-mongering friends and neighbors to knock it off the path.
The flexible Loeb playing space has been reconfigured for Bedlam’s high-energy production, which was reprised Off-Broadway in 2016 and also picked up a slew of awards when staged at Washington, D.C.’s Folger Theatre. Here, the audience is deployed on two sides of a long, rectangular playing space. At either end is a sort of onstage green room where the traveling scenic elements can rest up while societal nabobs lean in to listen when not being launched or pushed into the action.
Once entered into the central fray, both scenery and performers are part of a choreographic melee that’s both dizzying to watch and emblematic of the emotional chaos beneath all the mean, shrewd, petulant social manipulation and marital brokering. (There are also some charmingly staged dances, both period and contemporary, including an opening number that moves an initially casually clad cast from boogying rave to formal gavotte and through partial striptease into empire frocks, trousers and boots.)
OK, I’m not going to kid you. Although the Dashwood sisters’ romantic hopes and woes are given full, poignant shrift, the theater piece’s satirical trimmings are not so subtle as those Austen might leak from her pen. They are also, for the most part, hilarious, with Nigel Gore’s freewheeling Mrs. Jennings, a sort of cross between a linebacker and a dowager, her doily-like neckerchief as askew as her sense of social propriety, particularly endearing.
Among the female Dashwood clan, removed from the Eden of Norland Park to a tiny cottage on the estate of sporty relations, Maggie Adams McDowell is a warm, gently roiling Elinor, bearing patiently the ups and downs of her “extreme attachment” to honorable if awkward Edward Ferrars. Jessica Frey’s Marianne, her more violent affections for the dashing if dishonorable John Willoughby heightened by delirious excursions through thunderstorms and the crucible of fever, also agonizes credibly if more dramatically. And in Violeta Picayo’s mischievous performance, youngest sister Margaret seems fated to be a chip off the old Marianne rather than the old Elinor block.
The rest of the cast of 10 (an abundance for Bedlam, whose movable St. Joan, which played Central Square Theater in 2015, deployed only four actors in 24 roles) play multiple parts — sometimes in a single scene, as when Lisa Birnbaum’s screechy Anne Steele is thrust to the other end of an imaginary dining table to represent a slumped, senile if still tyrannical Mrs. Ferrars and Jamie Smithson’s nervous, gawky Edward Ferrars morphs into the character’s flamboyantly soused younger brother, Robert, delivering a drunken encomium to “a cottage.”
As the effusive Sir John Middleton, his wig perpetually ajar or wacked about like a hockey puck, Ryan Quinn is an amiable bull in the proverbial china shop. He’s also personable as a horse, his bridle passed to an audience member. And James Patrick Nelson makes a convincingly morose if honorable Colonel Brandon, the long-in-the-tooth but also long-on-compassion bachelor whose dormant embers can only be fanned by the smoldering warmth of a wised-up Marianne.
The twists and turns of misalliance, disinheritance and dirt-dishing are smoothed out in the end, of course, leading to a near-hoedown of a happy ending in which even McDowell’s Elinor lets loose. Still, in the long run, the production mirrors Austen’s more judicious thoughts on the perils of love and the business of matrimony. If you internalize your feelings like Elinor, you won’t get them bruised by hurtling scenery. If you wear them on your sleeve like Marianne, prepare for the metaphoric equivalent of being bashed by a flying portal.

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