By Mike Hoban
Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility – By Kate Hamill; Based on the novel by Jane Austen; Directed by Eric Tucker; Choreography by Alexandra Beller; Scenic Design by John McDermott; Lighting Design by Les Dickert; Costume design by Angela Huff; and Sound Design by Alex Neumann. Presented by Bedlam at American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.), Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge through January 14
Fans of New York-based Bedlam have been eagerly awaiting the theater troupe’s return to Cambridge, and as we saw once again on opening night, with ample reason. Anyone who had seen their insanely clever productions of St. Joan and Twelfth Night/What You Will (both of which won Eliot Norton and IRNE Awards for Best Visiting Productions in 2015 and 2017 respectively) at the Central Square Theatre in recent years must surely have had the performance dates circled on their calendars. And Bedlam, true to form, did not disappoint.
Bedlam takes troupe member Kate Hamill’s spirited and very funny adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, puts it on wheels (quite literally), and produces a rollicking version of the romantic classic that is as intricately choreographed as any musical. From the very opening of the performance – where the 10-person cast shakes it to Pharrell Williams’ “Come Get It Bae” in street clothes before downshifting into music and costumes more befitting Austen’s era – we know this performance will bear little resemblance to Masterpiece Theater.
It is the very late 1700’s, and Henry Dashwood has passed on, leaving his son John as the sole heir to his estate, Norland Park. On his deathbed, Henry requested that John take care of his second wife, the current Mrs. Dashwood, and her three daughters – Marianne, Elinor, and the youngest, Margaret (John’s stepsisters) – by giving them 10,000 pounds on which to survive. But John’s wife, the wealthy Fanny, rips a page from the modern GOP playbook and convinces John to leave them nothing, despite the fact that John will also inherit his mother’s fortune upon her passing. Fanny adds insult to injury by convincing John to move into the estate, booting Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters from their home, although she allows them time to find new accommodations.
In the meantime, Fanny’s socially awkward but altogether pleasant brother Edward Ferrars (Jamie Smithson) comes to visit Norland Park, and becomes smitten with oldest daughter Elinor (Maggie Adams McDowell). She returns his affections, but as the marriage-age daughter with the “sense” from the play’s title, reveals that she has the hots for Edward with this clinical evaluation, “At first sight, his address is certainly not striking; and his person can hardly be called handsome, till the expression of his eyes, which are uncommonly good, and the general sweetness of his countenance, is perceived.” When Fanny catches on to the budding romance, she humiliates Elinor at the dinner table, inferring that the dowry-less girl is in fact a gold digger. Mrs. Dashwood takes extreme offense, and immediately moves the family to a modest country cottage.
It is there where the stories of joy and heartbreak unfold, as Elinor and the emotional Marianne (Jessica Frey), who is cursed with “sensibility”, go through trials and tribulations in their quest for true love and happiness.
At times, playwright Hamill almost seems to be poking fun at the material, which certainly makes sense given the mores of the time period. The comedy comes from a different place than when Austen wrote it, when an unmarried young women could not so much as take an unescorted stroll with a man without opening herself up to judgement and salacious gossip. But she remains faithful to the story, with the original language intact. Although uproariously funny at times, the material is never played strictly for laughs, and the scenes where Elinor and Marianne have their hopes dashed are still painfully touching.
Much of the comedy comes from the physical staging of the production, as director Eric Tucker has actors pull other actors, seated on chairs and settees, in circles around the stage during scenes. The set is spare and simple, with the aforementioned wheeled chairs, a series of moveable doors and windows, as well as a few tree branches that symbolize the country side. Actors also portray (or at least provide the sound effects for) birds, yapping dogs, and even chipmunks, in full view of the audience. The performances of the cast across the board are first rate, with most actors filling multiple roles, so it hardly seems fair to single out performances. There is also much breaking of the fourth wall, to great comic effect. Costumer Angela Huff also deserves kudos for her terrific period attire.
Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility turns this traditional period piece on its head, and it is a raucous good time. As for fans of Bedlam, the troupe will be presenting Hamlet and Saint Joan in repertory at ArtsEmerson in March. Circle the dates on your calendars. For more information on Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility at the A.R.T., go to https://americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/bedlams-sense-sensibility