Location: Bedlam/The Gym at Judson, New York, NY
Event Date: January 17-April 17, 2016 (extended again from June 17-Oct 2)
Review Date: March 6, 2016
In the Bedlam production of Sense & Sensibility, everything is constantly in motion—actors, set pieces, and props—with bodies, tables and chairs, windowed trellises, and even the costumes themselves on occasion whirling across the stage from side to side. What is remarkable about this endlessly mobile and highly energetic production is not simply that it ramps up the excitement through a brilliant adaptation, bringing new life to Austen’s weighty text (a novel that is often loved, but not without its difficulties). It also finds a magic balance between “updating” the feel of a Romantic-era novel and staying true to the spirit of its drama and deep feeling. The comedy is more broad than subtle in the main—there are many, riotously funny bits—but it doesn’t sacrifice attention to period fidelity or the vital pathos of near-tragic moments in the script. Since comedy rules the day, the play’s finale is stronger and more uplifting than the one in Austen’s novel, to be sure. But overall, the production is anchored by a commitment to the strength of feeling that ties the characters to each other and to their social world. Its signal achievement is that it employs great creativity to make palpable the profound limits of privacy in late 18th-century life for an early 21st-century audience that thinks about intimacy in very different ways from Austen and her contemporaries.
Perhaps it is best to begin with a bit of consolation for those who are worried about liberties taken: despite what the promotional materials suggest, there is no horse-headed Austen (nor any other proper lady), nor do the actors—surprisingly—wear roller skates. (For a genuine convergence of Austen and the world of roller derby, see Devoney Looser aka Stone Cold Jane Austen.) To be fair, there is one excellent and quite amusing scene in which an actor (Jason O’Connell, playing Edward Ferrars) enters riding his “horse” (played convincingly by another actor, Stephan Wolfert). But here and elsewhere this adaptation balances such seeming absurdities with genuine moments of feeling connection. And one might even stop to consider these less subtle moments as windows into some unexpected and quite serious insights: in this case, for example, Edward is far more comfortable—and better able to communicate—with his trusty steed than with any of the Dashwood ladies. As funny as this bit was, it also conveyed a significant truth about Edward’s character quite economically, a necessary strategy in a play moving at breakneck speed from one quick scene to the next. It also set up a clever contrast to the later scene in which Willoughby uses a horse as commodity, a gift (or less charitably, a pawn) in his quest to woo Marianne Dashwood.
One might speculate that a similar logic governs the choices in double-casting throughout the play as well. In one of its most memorable examples, Mrs. Dashwood doubles as Anne Steele (Samantha Steinmetz, who is fantastic in both roles), and in so doing she has the unenviable task of transforming instantly from sedate and suffering middle-aged mother to hilariously over-the-top, tone-deaf teen flirt. The apex of this strategy comes in a later scene in Act 2, when the doubling itself is doubled: Steinmetz switches back and forth in the same scene between Anne Steele and Mrs. Dashwood while Laura Baranik plays both Lucy Steele and Fanny Dashwood, leading to a hilarious bit of four-way musical chairs that actually works. In a doubling of even closer proximity, O’Connell plays both Edward Ferrars and his brother Robert (strangely not credited in the Playbill), with the latter erupting as a bit of an Austin Powers parody mixed with an intensely drunken version of his foppish predecessors on screen. Again, the humor seems paramount, but the production’s double-casting also suggests the unavoidable proximity into which both the least and most intimate characters are drawn without hope of escape. In other words, we get a sense not that everyone here is comically interchangeable, but rather that no one can ever get away from anyone else for very long, if at all. The constant awareness of others means that privacy—to which I’ll return later—scarcely exists in this world, either in the physical or psychological sense.
Playwright Kate Hamill (who also plays Marianne) deserves enormous credit for maintaining fidelity to Austen’s world while reducing this dark, expansive novel to an accessible and engaging 2-hour and 15-minute play that no one will fail to find entertaining. Two things at the outset of the production will stand out surely to everyone who attends this show: the strikingly effective minimalism of the set, and the rambunctiously energetic staging. It is difficult to imagine a more active stage adaptation, and perhaps the limits of space and budget have helped to foster the brilliant creative choices made here. The venue is essentially an aging gymnasium in the basement of a large church, with a performance area that bifurcates two pairs of bleacher-style seating on risers, each with three rows apiece (about 125 seats total), so that each set of seats faces the other across the floor. One of the effects, thus, is to discover the audience itself mirrored throughout the performance, which heightens the sense of intimacy—one of Bedlam’s key aims—and, a touch more ominously, of surveillance. Five windowed trellises festooned with some stray greenery are major set pieces, as well as a variety of tables and chairs—all on casters for speed and ease of motion. Paintings appear on the walls at either end of the performance space, helping to establish a sense of period—and one small image of Austen herself is just visible if you’re close enough to spot it. (John McDermott’s set design is a work of genius.) The actors begin by loosening up onstage, out of character and in contemporary dress, but eventually shed the clothes and personae of the contemporary world while inviting us back to Austen’s era. Makeup and costume changes are nearly in view throughout, partially screened from the audience at the extreme end of the performance space. In short, everything about the production facilitates a commitment to intimacy, even as it is comes to be challenged by the erosion and ultimate compromise of privacy.
The show opens with free-form, contemporary dance, shifting suddenly to a more formal period-style (both music and dance)—as though we have all travelled back in time together—and finally erupting into an explosion of cacophonous noise from the entire cast as they rush to take positions onstage for the telling of the tale. A quick shift situates the first scene at the late Mr. Dashwood’s funeral, which is expedited with a successful blend of solemnity and humor. Of course, this is an interpolated scene, only alluded to in the novel’s opening pages but memorably used to contextualize the story in Emma Thompson’s screenplay for the well-known 1995 Ang Lee film, and echoed in the 2008 mini-series scripted by Andrew Davies as well. It serves a similar purpose here, feeding the audience’s empathy with the Dashwood women while conveying a strong sense of their loss and social precarity. As quickly as these conditions are established, the audience is whisked along to a scene that is memorable in nearly every adaptation for stage or screen: Fanny (Baranik) and John Dashwood (John Russell) discussing/negotiating what they owe their comparatively impoverished relations. Both Fanny’s mendacity and John’s spinelessness are represented perfectly, and creative staging provides a rare quasi-cinematic perspective on the scene: both actors stand while “in bed” and the props—pillows, sheets, bedroom rug, cup and saucer, candlestick holder—are held in place at a 90-degree angle by other actors to give the humorous illusion of our birds-eye view of the scene (perhaps another nod to what is often seen in film but not on stage, in addition to facilitating a quick change of scene).
Shortly afterward, Edward (O’Connell) visits Norland Park for the first time, and almost immediately he and Elinor (Andrus Nichols) are thrown together, literally, by the deus ex machina of the stage machinery: both characters are engaged to write letters at the same table, with chairs thrust into the scene (as with all of the set pieces) by actors at the edge of the stage. This ploy, too, works to quite humorous effect, assisting the characters while helping to highlight the social contrivances necessary for all unmarried people to negotiate intimate spaces, however awkward the circumstances might be. This scene is additionally uncomfortable not only because Edward himself is played traditionally (ala Hugh Grant) as a bumbling, stuttering, socially inept anti-suitor, but also because the Dashwood ladies are forced into the unbearable position of playing host to the relations who are about to displace them from their own home. The humor elicited by this staging is again balanced with pathos: we see both characters struggle to come out of themselves, to be articulate, and to come nearer each other physically; as the script notes, “[t]his may be the first time that either Elinor or Edward has been completely alone with an eligible member of the opposite sex—ever” (13). This intense discomfort leads to Edward spilling his ink (always a richly symbolic literary gesture: see Melville’s Billy Budd for a memorable instance with soup) and—in a rather futile attempt to clean up the mess—getting an ink stain on his handkerchief, which he carries throughout the play as a sentimental talisman reminding him of this shared moment with Elinor. ‘Stained by sociability’ could be his epitaph.
The vertiginous motion that captures actors and audience alike in its orbit, here and throughout the production, is always as smart as it is funny. Even for those who do not know the plot in advance, this scene helps to convey the structural logic of the story very early, as if we are meant to see the inevitability of the genre of romantic comedy from the beginning (i.e., “…of course these two must come together…”). Elinor and Edward clearly need some assistance from forces beyond their control—and implicitly, our own spectatorial complicity, as if the desires of the audience might help to sway the outcome. So even if we do expect that help to come in the end, it is no less satisfying when it finally does, because the tale and the tellers have conscripted us into wishing for precisely what, despite all evident obstacles, really will come to pass.
Subsequent scenes allow for more range in Edward’s performance, as when Marianne attempts to make him an articulate reader of English poetry. Choosing the famous Hamlet soliloquy for his training works nicely (and is alluded to in the novel as a text read by the family with Willoughby [Copeland 98]), and it provides an opportunity to highlight Edward’s hidden affability as he gamely struggles to please the ladies with his reading. Of course, he is rather a hopeless case at any form of public speaking, as he admits, but this pedagogical scene perfectly sets up a lesson that Marianne will later repeat—with much greater success—with Colonel Brandon: “Shakespeare writes in a rhythm—(pounds iambically on the table, ba-bum ba-bum ba-bum) which matches precisely the beats of the human heart” (Hamill 15, 76). Here and elsewhere Jason O’Connell exudes a good blend of awkward discomfort and genuine sensitivity—his heart does beat, after all, although it is not yet in alignment with his head—helping to make Edward likeable rather than merely frustratingly ineffectual.
Hamill’s infectious exuberance is a constant source of energy for nearly every scene, and it also provides an even more dramatic contrast with these two men than readers of Austen might expect. Onstage, she is evidently the engine of this well-oiled machine. But if this adaptation tends to focus on Marianne, it does not sacrifice attention to the nuances of Elinor’s quieter suffering and more subtle pleasures—Nichols radiates the qualities of character essential to Elinor’s travails. And Marianne’s intensity also plays well against the more sedate and reserved longing of Colonel Brandon (Edmund Lewis). Her acapella performance for him at Barton is simple and lovely, and his swiftly developing love perfectly captured by staging the scene with their bodies swirling closer and closer to each other on stage. With Willoughby (John Russell), too, whose entrance with Marianne is a comic highlight—carrying her onstage through the doorframe to the dressing room, he is misted from both sides by actors with spray bottles until he glistens—both lovers match each other with believable ardor and enthusiasm. Their mutual love of Cowper and dual recitation of part of the poem “Hope” (not Shakespeare’s more familiar sonnet 116, as in the Thompson/Lee version) make for fitting choices, since the novel also notes their shared enthusiasm for his verse—and it also makes Cowper the reading selection given to Edward, which further underscores Austen’s own well-known affection for the poet.
Lewis’s best scene is probably Brandon’s disclosure to Elinor of Willoughby’s character, an interchange that is briefly and beautifully executed, with Marianne overhearing the whole of the discussion. Despite his lack of command onstage—as in the novel, many will see this incarnation as a Brandon who is barely there (David M. Shapard observes that, though clearly important to the story, he “is absent or withdrawn for a good part of it” )—there is still some chemistry with Elinor, enough so that we can see both characters as deeply feeling and bearing the potential to be well-suited for each other prior to the romantic resolution that brings the younger sister to his side. It is probably unfair (but also unavoidable for true Janeites) that Lewis pales in comparison to the late, lamented Alan Rickman, who brought a quietly smoldering intensity to this character who so deeply needs it. But if anything, Rickman’s performance is an aberration from Austen’s original, however enjoyable fans have found it. Perhaps it is most fair to say that this role might be the most challenging of all to make meaningful.
As in all of the most successful adaptations, minor characters are also strong—indeed, a highlight in this production—and deserve particular mention. Sir John Middleton (Stephan Wolfert again)—who reminds one of Wallace from Wallace & Gromit, as if claymation had come to life—is the perpetual scene-stealer, with a seemingly elastic face and winning asides to the audience. You might find yourself as I did actually having a brief conversation with Sir John during one of the scenes when he performs as one of the garrulous Gossips. Mrs. Jennings (Gabra Zackman), too, is animated and amusing, and well paired with Wolfert. Although uncredited, the choice of a male actor for the elder Mrs. Ferrars makes for great laughs as well, especially in the hilarious scene that captures the downfall of conniving Lucy Steele (Baranik). After sister Anne betrays the truth of Lucy’s secret engagement to Edward, Lucy is not only figuratively unmasked but also literally attacked—here again is a debt to the Thompson/Lee film—by Mrs. Ferrars (rather than Fanny as in the original script). Within moments, as if by contagion, this confrontation leads to an anarchic full-cast brawl on the floor.
Again, a very funny scene succeeds richly by also being very clever: here we see the logical extension of what the Gossips represent brought to fruition. The consequence of Lucy’s subterfuge—and, in a distinctly Austenian irony, of her grasping for position, specifically—is for her to be ostracized not merely by the seemingly supportive Fanny. Ultimately she will be cast out by the whole family, and potentially by all of polite society, since her trapped fiancé, Edward, seems consigned at this point to disinheritance and a probable life of poverty. This fate is quickly remedied—within moments, in fact—by Brandon’s offer of the Delaford living to Edward, enabling him to have a home and church to establish his career and future family. But the final, fitting twist, of course, sends her off with his odious brother Robert instead, since he is now the heir to whom she can hitch her wagon, and Edward is freed from his much-regretted youthful commitment to her by this timely abandonment. In Hamill’s script, the Gossips “flee to spread the word, cackling amongst themselves” (65), reminding us clearly that Lucy’s fall will be far more lasting and profound than this delightful bit of slapstick can capture on its own.
But it is in the desperate post-jilting scene, with Marianne writing desperately to Willoughby for explanation after the shock of his rebuff at the party in London, that we see perhaps the fullest realization of what I take to be the central theme of the production. The scene focuses on her writing in solitude, but it is framed by the group of Gossips — from the wings and behind trellis windows, lending asides that observe, judge, and intrude on her imagined privacy. This is a brilliant stroke of design and direction, of course, since the actors can swiftly shift the set pieces while also inserting themselves in the scene. And yes, it produces some comic effect as before. But here there is also a shift from the usual conceit in which we observe but ostensibly ignore the actors doubling as crew. In the earlier scene in which Edward and Elinor swirled around the stage while seated at the table writing letters, the actors who move the set pieces indeed blend in, as they do in the early bed scene with Fanny and John Dashwood as well. But here and elsewhere in the play the actors stay in the scene, observe it actively, and by doubling for the Gossips, essentially draw the audience in more deeply and in tension with the heroine. By focalizing our attention—not unlike the traditional chorus in Greek drama—they also work to implicate us in the judgment perpetually being rendered by these nearly omnipresent, invasive characters and their consistently critical point of view. This effect has less to do with seeing them as authoritative figures or apt judges and more to do with the degree to which we have been addressed and drawn in by them throughout the full two acts. Whether or not we say or think the same things ourselves, in other words, we are constantly encouraged to join them as gossips from the seats.
In Hamill’s script Act One is preceded by a note on the role of the Gossips, who are described as “a chorus of high-society creatures” who “chatter away happily” at the beginning of the play. Their significance, however, clearly exceeds that of happy chatter: “in late eighteenth-century England, gossip (and a reputation created by that gossip) is lifeblood and social stricture and pastime and national sport and destiny. Whether or not it is delineated in the script, the Gossips are often watching or whispering or contributing to the action. The intent is to create an atmosphere in which someone is almost always observing and judging. It is oppressive and constricting, but not necessarily unfriendly; it is all great fun for the Gossips” (9). Both the fun and the fear are manifest in Bedlam’s production, and they are effectively produced with the audience collaborating in the process, not just passively witnessing the plight of its principle characters.
There seems to be a somewhat different strategy in the scene at Cleveland in Act 2, when Marianne takes her fateful walk in the storm and is assisted by the Gossips, who directly engage her now, “buffeting” her as part of the storm, seizing and lifting her “as if taking her away to be sacrificed” (71). This dynamic but economical scene allows the audience to understand that the Gossips do not simply represent an external “Society” and the imposition of its strictures, so often seen as false, artificial, and regrettable to a modern-day audience. Instead, it quickly becomes clear that for Marianne there is a blurring not only of public and private but also of internal and external perception—even in Romantic isolation and suffering, she can never really escape the perceptions of others and thus the consequences of her actions. Her own perspective, however free and independent she might like to imagine herself, is always affected by the social world around her, and ignoring this reality threatens both her reputation and her health.
As a result of these highly perceptive and nuanced strategies, our own sense of privacy is brilliantly eroded, too, attenuated throughout the production by the mobility of staging and its intense interactivity—leaning in, wheeling in, surrounding individuals claustrophobically as well as comedically in groups. This production should generate many laughs, while also sending theatergoers home with something serious to think about amidst all of the merriment. Along with the constant whirling motion of the show, it communicates perhaps the most central truth not only of the novel but of Austen’s era as well: no one is ever alone.
P.S. The last thing I should note is that multiple lucky audiences will have additional opportunities to see Hamill’s play performed this year. Bedlam’s production returns June 17 and continues through the beginning of October. In addition, the play serves as the season opener at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis (9/10-10/29), and will be featured as part of the “Will & Jane” festivities celebrating Shakespeare and Austen anniversaries at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. (9/13-10/30). I strongly urge everyone in those regions to take advantage of their good fortune.
Suggested Further Reading
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. Ed. Edward Copeland. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
—. The Annotated Sense and Sensibility. Ed. David M. Shapard. New York: Anchor Books, 2011.
Hamill, Kate. Sense and Sensibility (Based on the Novel by Jane Austen). New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2016.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer. Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth-Century Self. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Thompson, Emma. The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries: Bringing Jane Austen’s Novel to Film. New York: Newmarket Press, 1995.
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