When most people (myself included) hear the name “Jane Austen” they usually groan, recalling awful memories of reading Emma in school or watching a bad film version of Pride and Prejudice. However, Bedlam’s new production, adapted for the stage by Kate Hamill and director Eric Tucker, is not the boring, stuffy old story you would expect. This adaptation uses creative staging with a modern flare that makes even Austen seem relatable.
Although the show is not (technically) “on Broadway” it might as well be. Located at the Gym at Judson–yes, it is literally in the gym of an old church–this show is certainly worth the trip to Chelsea. Bedlam is known for their experimental works that explore modern themes and they often reinvigorate older texts. “Sense and Sensibility” accomplishes this; combining Regency aesthetics with contemporary language, staging, and themes.
When you walk in to the theater (it is just a gym with fancy lights), the actors can be viewed getting into costumes, hair, and makeup, which provides a very entertaining and unique degree of metatheater to the piece before it even begins. The actual performance begins with the actors in mostly regular clothes dancing to modern music, but beautifully transitions into an 18th century quadrille; period costumes and music seamlessly lull the audience into the historical backdrop of the play.
The play itself concerns the Dashwood family, whose patriarch dies and leaves the wife and daughters almost penniless. Thus, the two eldest daughters, Elinor (played by the superb Andrus Nichols) and Marianne (played by the hilarious and emotionally compelling Kate Hamill, who also wrote the play), must go out into the world and attempt to find their perfect eligible bachelor/future husband. The title itself refers to the respective personalities of the two daughters: Elinor is the “sense,” often pragmatic, unemotional, and straightforward, while Marianne is the “sensibility,” which oddly enough at the period meant “overly emotional” (or in our terminology, dramatic).
Jane Austen is known for her irony, but usually when people read her books they never laugh out loud. The opposite can be said about this production, which constantly reduces the audiences to fits of laughter. Kate Hamill as Marianne Dashwood, Laura Baranik as Lucy Steele, Jessica Frey as Margaret Dashwood, and John Russel as John Dashwood were particularly hilarious, proving that even an Austen play can be funny for a post-modern audience used to satire musicals like “The Book of Mormon” or “Something Rotten!”
One of the best elements of the show was the extensive use of double and triple casting. Almost every member of the ensemble–for they indeed did work as a collective–played more than one part, usually to comedic effect. These quick character changes were often achieved through the use of small but effective costume changes. Though, overall the costumes (designed by Angela Huff) seemed ill-fitting on the actors and were sometimes distractingly awkward.
The set, designed by John McDermott, was on the other hand, beautiful, simple, versatile, and effective. The show was staged in a tunnel, with the audience in two sections facing each other. This is famously one of the most difficult ways to stage a show, with difficult sight lines and confusion stagings for actors. One of the most clever tricks this show used to conquer the tunnel staging was a dinning room table and chairs that were on wheels. This enabled actors to be physically spun around during a scene, rotating the entire world to create better audience visibility as well as beautiful moments of theater. The main set pieces were several glass window french doors that were used to make rooms, backdrops, doorways, and more. The actors manipulated their bodies, the set, and the area around them to make many amazing visual effects; overall, it was a spectacular use of a very sparse set.
Even for those who dislike Jane Austen, it is almost impossible to leave “Sense and Sensibility” without a newfound respect for her work, as well as for Bedlam, it’s creative team, and it’s actors. This play proves that old plays can be given new life; they can be funny, emotional, and beautiful. Even better, it proves that though we are in the age of selfies, a stage adaptation of a Jane Austen novel can still get standing ovations and an extended run.