Sense and Sensibility Review - Jane Austen Thrives

There’s joy unbounded for fans of Jane Austen at a small off-Broadway theater in New York’s Greenwich Village. Her novels don’t easily transpose to the stage or to film, but writer Kate Hamill has succeeded gloriously with a sprightly adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. Legions of Jane Austen fans are lining up to see the romances of the Dashwood girls brought to life with panache in a manner the author could never have imagined.

 

What took the Downton Abbey family six TV seasons happened overnight to the Dashwood family.   The widow and her daughters were instantaneously separated from the comforts of their estate and, in their case, taken in by titled relatives.   Then it’s the same fetching Jane Austen story of dowry-less girls needing husbands.  In this case one of the sisters is sensible and a model of decorum while the other is a heap of untethered emotions and, to be honest, more than a bit wayward.  The third sister, eager but too young for husband-hunting, blithely propels the action as a reporter/tattle-tale.  

  

And action there is but the story isn’t half of this glorious, uproarious production by Bedlam, playing at the Gym at Judson Church (243 Thompson St., New York City).    From the very beginning you know you’re in good, inventive, skilled hands.  All the props are on wheels and in motion. The ivied lattice-y walls separated walls and the chairs and tables.  The beds—don’t ask.  They are upright and positioned vertically by the actors.  The cast, wandering through the section of wall, start out as a bunch of hippies, working into a kind of raucous cha-cha as they roll the set off-stage Before your eyes the hippie garments are stripped off and tossed while the dance eases into a minuet and we are in Jane-Austen land.  And the dialogue commences.  Even with the furniture rushing around and a dinner party represented with nothing but daintily crossed forks and knives plus many a farcical diversion, the script is a respectful adaptation of Austen’s first published novel.  Kate Hamill, the playwright, who also plays Marianne, the “sensibility” part, uses Austen’s language with an occasional crazy diversion—that Jane herself would doubtless applaud.  The story is told with graceful movement and emotional clarity.  The acting is generally first-rate.

  

 

The sisters, Elinor and Marianne are opposite in looks as well as temperament.   It takes a while to get them straight, as the statuesque, contained Elinor (Andrus Nichols) resembles her newly-widowed mother (Samantha Steinmetz) while Marianne--short, headlong and electric—seems to be a stowaway from some other family.  Edward Ferrar, the conflicted good guy (Jason O’Connell) plays his own drunken boor of a brother.  The solid, utterly menschy Col. Brandon (Edmund Lewis) radiates kindness and good sense.

  

 

A program note describes Bedlam, a four-year-old company with a wild growth of fans, as “Committed to the immediacy of the relationship between the actor and the audience.”  That is why, as the characters are rushing about the perimeter of the big gym-floor stage, you are likely to find your eyes locked with the manic Sir John Middleton (Stephen Wolfert) who also plays a petted pet horse, or the romantic John Willoughby (John Russell) doubling as the dry and morally-challenged heir to the Dashwood estate.  Wicked Fanny Dashwood, his scheming wife (Laura Baranik), might dance right up to you and say something mean.  She’s not only a versatile actress but a singer, dancer and prop mover, like all the other multi-taskers of this cast.

  

 Because dance and a kind of shuffleboard with the furniture are so much a part of this production, there’s a blurred line between direction and choreography.  That’s what makes it so much fun.  Many of the supporting roles are broadly comic, but the main characters are seriously moving in their romantic and financial plights.  Andrus Nichols arrived at just the right combination of sense and self-righteousness, pride and desire to make Elinor an absorbing character.  The widow Dashford (Samamtha Steinmetz) and her youngest daughter Margaret (Jessica Frey) complete a family group of intertwined individuals—Margaret a spiky teen-ager who hugs and tattles.  Credit goes to just the right combination of acting and direction.  Eric Tucker, the director (who was the Wall Street Journal’s Director of the Year 2014), has won many a prize for himself and Bedlam in its young life.  He is also responsible (with Katie Young) for the choice and delivery of pre-recorded music that keeps the balloon of this airy (and pithy) presentation way up high.

  

 More about Bedlam's "Jane Austin"

Photos: Ashely Garrett, 2016

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