Monday, February 8, 2016

141. Review: SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (seen February 7, 2016)

“Awesome Austen”
I’m happy to report that, unlike the new movie version of Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, Kate Hamill’s adaptation for the Bedlam company of Austen’s 1811 novel SENSE AND SENSIBILITY is zombie free. On the other hand, you could argue that this enormously appealing production at Greenwich Village’s Judson Gym has invested Austen’s characters with so much energy, humor, wit, passion, and affection that—while not exactly zombies—they’ve been resurrected from their page life and brought to brimming stage life. I regret having missed the show when it premiered at the same venue two years ago (with a somewhat different casting arrangement); it definitely deserves a repeat viewing. 
John Russell, Laura Baranik. Photo: Ashley Garrett.
The field of 19th-century British novels has proved a fecund source for theatrical, film, and TV adaptations, with serialized TV versions capable of providing the most complete retellings of these often long, complexly plotted works. The theatre’s limitations might be thought a serious drawback when grappling with such works, but, under Eric Tucker’s inspired direction, Bedlam’s SENSE AND SENSIBILITY manages to encapsulate the heart of Austen’s story, and, over the course of two and a half hours, to enrapture its audience with equal shares of laughter and tears, much as did the Royal Shakespeare Company when it presented Dickens’s far more complex THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY on Broadway in 1981 in a two-part production running eight and a half hours.
Andruss Nichols. Photo: Ashley Garrett.
SENSE AND SENSIBILITY’s title alludes to two of the three Dashwood sisters, Marianne (Ms. Hamill, who did the outstanding adaptation), and her older sibling, Elinor (Andrus Nichols). Marianne, representing sense or feeling, is the one given to excessive emoting, while Elinor is sensibility or practicality, expressed in how she manages to keep her emotions in check. Of course, neither is totally one or the other, and each strives toward finding a balance in their response to life. The family also includes a preadolescent sister, Margaret (Jessica Frey); a kind and understanding, mother, Mrs. Dashwood (Samantha Steinmetz); and a half-brother, the feckless John (John Russell). Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters find themselves in reduced circumstances when Mr. Dashwood dies and leaves his estate to John, whose grasping wife, Fanny (Laura Baranik), refuses John’s intentions of offering his family a decent sum to live on, forcing the women to leave their expansive country estate.
Stephan Wolfert, Gabra Zackman. Photo: Ashley Garrett.
Once the exiled Dashwoods find modest quarters, thanks to distant relations—the joyously upbeat Sir John Middleton (Stephan Wolfert) and his eternally optimistic mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings (Gabra Zackman)—Marianne and Elinor become entangled with potential suitors: Marianne with the handsome but suspect John Willoughby (Mr. Russell) and the aging but benevolent Colonel Brandon (Edmund Lewis), and Elinor with the goodhearted Edward Ferrars (Jason O’Connell, who also plays Edward’s goofball brother, Robert). Naturally, the course of true love never does run smooth.
Jessica Frey, Andrus Nichols, Kate Hamill, Samantha Steinmetz. Photo: Ashley Garrett.
Not once does the often satirical storytelling—which shifts between country estates and London—lag as the impressively versatile ensemble races through Austen’s romantic comedy of broken and mended hearts in a world where marriages tend to be based more on financial than emotional circumstances. Ten actors play 13 roles, while also serving as chorus members, dogs, horses, or whatever else the show requires; each performer is perfectly in character, even when they don’t physically resemble who they’re playing, or, at least, not as you may have imagined them. What they’ve done, though, is to discover how to physically suggest through posture, facial expression, voice, gesture, and movement the inner natures of their roles. They serve both as actors and stage hands, rapidly shifting the wheeled white scenic units and furniture around from scene to scene, or even within scenes as characters remain seated on chairs and divans. So many things go rolling by, in fact, you wonder why the actors themselves aren’t on skates in what could be a sort of “Jane Austen Meets Skylight Express.”

The staging is filled with mime and movement, punctuated with sparkling coups de théâtre, such as when the actors strip off their present day clothing to reveal their period costumes underneath, or when a couple in bed is represented by their standing erect with pillows held behind their heads and sheets before them, and with actors beside them holding lamps and cups and saucers parallel to the ground. When gossipy scenes are staged the company gathers in carefully arranged clusters much as they appear in photographs from Meyerhold’s famed production of THE INSPECTOR GENERAL. Now and then, an actor may break the fourth wall and say something directly to your face.

Bedlam’s recent A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM was too self-consciously over the top for me, but with SENSE AND SENSIBILITY their vision enhances rather than gets in the way of a wonderful story and characters, demonstrating how effectively material conceived for another medium can be brilliantly transposed to the theatre. Designer John McDermott’s clever set of wheeled doorframes, window-paned walls, saplings, and furniture divides the audience into two groups on low bleachers facing a long, narrow, central acting space, with the actors visible at one end before the show as they put on their makeup. All is entrancingly lit by Les Dickert, who makes much use of chandeliers, while Angela Huff’s costumes capture the turn of the 19th century but also suggest the low budget with which they’ve been assembled. Mr. Tucker and Katie Young’s sound design combines period with contemporary music, most notably during the several dances, like those that begin and end the proceedings when the entire company engages in a blend of traditional and up-to-date social dancing marvelously choreographed by Alexandra Beller.

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY combines both those traits, and so will audiences that have the sense and sensibility to seek out this classy entertainment.


Judson Gym
243 Thompson Street, NYC

Through April 10