The audience sits on two sides of the long, wide playing area. Before the play begins, the actors mingle with the audience and chat. Suddenly loud rock music is heard and the actors begin dancing. Just as you wonder if you have wandered into the wrong theater, the performers begin removing their modern outfits and are suddenly dressed in late 18th century costumes. They then begin a line dance typical of Jane Austen’s time. All of the furniture and set pieces (four trellised windows, a door frame, tables, sofa, chairs) are on wheels in John McDermott’s witty set design so that one scene immediately segues into another. As the trellised windows are rolled into place, the Gossips (played by all of the actors not in a scene) either look in through the windows or peer around the frames, commenting on the action or revealing the reaction of the community to the events at hand. Hamill’s script beautifully captures the spirit of Austen’s satire, as well as dramatizing her entire story.
When the story begins, a group of five Gossips tell us that rich Mr. Dashwood has died but due to English laws of primogeniture his entire estate is entailed to John Dashwood, his son from his first marriage. When John’s greedy wife Fanny convinces him to renege on his promise to his father and not give any help to his father’s second family, the second Mrs. Dashwood with two marriageable daughters (Elinor and Marianne) is left in genteel poverty. When Fanny’s brother Edward Ferrars shows an interest in rational, level-headed Elinor, Fanny insults Mrs. Dashwood who makes immediate plans to move far away to a cottage in Devonshire offered for a very modest sum by her cousin, Sir John Middleton.
There they meet Sir John’s mother-in-law, the matchmaking, busybody Mrs. Jennings (hilariously played by Tucker in drag) who immediately imagines a love match between reticent middle-aged bachelor Colonel Brandon and the flighty, emotional Marianne. However, Marianne takes a fancy to dashing young John Willoughby, a young heir in the neighborhood who saves her when she sprains her ankle. The effusive and voluble Marianne tells everyone that she is engaged to Willoughby and that Elinor is engaged to Ferrars which leads to trouble as neither man has proposed and their families expect them to marry fortunes. When all of the characters meet up during the London season, the fact that the men are not free becomes exceedingly clear and leads to the multiple plot complications. Austen’s story seems to prove that sense (reason) will trump sensibility (emotion) on all occasions as Marianne is to learn the hard way.
The young company gives extremely subtle, nuanced performances that belie their age and the fact that the company is still in its infancy. Producing director Andrus Nichols is poignant as the discreet Elinor who keeps her feelings hidden, but makes them perfectly clear to the viewer. Author Hamill is delightful as the unreserved and extroverted Marianne who is always jumping to conclusions based on appearances. Nigel Gore’s Colonel Brandon brings authority and maturity to this most reticent of men. Vaishnavi Sharma brings much animation to the 13-year-old Dashwood sister Margaret. And let us not forget Tucker whose large presence as Mrs. Jennings adds a note of levity throughout.
The doubling is not only clever but makes pointed comments on the story. Jason O’Connell is amusing as both the bookish Edward Ferrars and as his callow younger brother Robert. John Russell plays two contrasting young men, John Dashwood, too pliant in the hands of his wife, and John Willoughby, the dashing libertine who has most of the women in thrall. Laura Baranik is able to give a different slant to two very self-absorbed women, the selfish and mercenary Fanny Dashwood and the scheming, social climbing Lucy Steele, who thinks she is engaged to Edward Ferrars. Samantha Steinmetz has fun playing first the loving and emotional Mrs. Dashwood and later the indiscreet Anne Steele. Stephan Wolfert is seen as the fun-loving Sir John Middleton as well as other characters with the instantaneous change of a wig.
Tucker’s staging is as entertaining as the play itself. For example, the dinner party at the Middletons has all of the actors lined up in rolling chairs facing one side of the audience to whom they move towards and strike up conversations with whomever they are facing. Then suddenly they all turn and approach the other side and begin conversations with the other half of the audience. Along with the cast playing many roles as well as convincing horses and dogs, Angela Huff’s period costumes go a long way to help establish the late 18th century atmosphere. Alexandra Beller’s choreography beautifully recreates the formal dances of the period.
With its large cast of characters and many settings, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility would not seem to be a good choice for stage adaptation. However, using the clever and faithful script by Kate Hamill, the ingenious Bedlam Theatre Company has created one of the most perfect dramatizations of a literary classic. Not only does it tell Austen’s entire story but it also deftly captures the feel and social mores of the period. Unlike the novel, this Sense and Sensibility is a hilariously comic put down of social pretentions which have never been out of date. Whether you are a fan of Jane Austen or a devotee of great theater, this is a production not to be missed. This will also make you an ardent admirer of the inventive Bedlam Theatre Company and hungry for whatever they do next.
Sense and Sensibility (return through November 20, 2016)
Bedlam Theatre Company
The Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson Street, between Lafayette Street and the Bowery, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Ovation tix at 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.bedlam.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission