BWW Review: An Esteemed SENSE AND SENSIBILITY at Austin Playhouse
I'm not particularly a Jane Austen fan. It's not that I dislike her work, it's just that I've heretofore been disinterested in it. My wife however, does enjoy Jane Austen. Therefore, when given the opportunity to provide my wife with an entertaining evening of theatre and review a show at the same time, I'm happy to do so. Imagine my surprise then, when I was treated to Kate Miller's adaptation of Austen's story, replete with contemporary hits from the likes of Lady Gaga and Adele and an entire set built on wheels, fercryinoutloud. When viewing this production, originally brilliantly conceptualized by Bedlam Theater in New York, one might think they were attending a show produced by the Rude Mechanicals and not Austin Playhouse - a statement I offer in high praise to both companies.
Look, I'll admit it, I mostly shy away from reviewing such works because I suffer from keeping track of who is betrothed to whom and whose cousin is whose and which country house belongs to which widow who invited so and so for the summer ... ugh! Lucky for me Austin Playhouse provided plot points in the program so I can provide a coherent synopsis in my review. Seriously though, I did follow along, despite some characters looking suspiciously like others. Maybe it's because the whole set is on wheels. So here goes: Elinor (Jess Hughes) and Marianne Dashwood (Marie Fahlgren) along with their mother (Cyndi Williams) and younger sister Margaret (Katie Kohler) are moved out of their home, thanks to their deceased father's son John Dashwood (Samuel Knowlton) from a previous marriage. John's wife Fanny (Lara Wright) convinces him, in a scene involving pillows and bedsheets, that he need not make "any provision for his stepmother and stepsisters." and he takes her advice, moving the women into his estate.
Once there, Fanny's brother Edward (Joey Banks) falls for Elinor and Fanny takes it so badly she moves the whole family out of the manor and into a cottage her cousin Sir John Middleton (played by Samuel Knowlton, not to be confused with John Dashwood, who is also played by Samuel Knowlton) has available. It's next door to a bumbling and charming Mrs. Jennings (Bernadette Nason.) Colonel Brandon (Huck Huckabee) shows up at this point too.
Soon, Marianne meets John Willoughby (not to be confused with John Dashwood or Sir John Middleton, played by Stephen Mercantel) at the cottage, as he's staying for awhile at nearby Allenham Court, which he will someday inherit. The two are inseparable until Willoughby leaves inexplicably for London.
Next thing we know, Sir John invites two distant relatives of Mrs Jennings, Misses Lucy (Katie Kohler) and Anne Steele (Lara Wright) to visit. Lucy develops a friendship with Elinor and admits that she's been engaged for four years.
To reveal to whom and what happens next would be to spoil the whole play, but those that are curious can certainly check Wikipedia for the final plot points.
The cast of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY are tasked with playing multiple characters AND performing the work of a running crew. It's a smart concept given the excessive scene changes that would otherwise make it impossible to mount this story on a stage. Jess Hughes and Marie Fahlgren deliver clean performances as Elinor and Marianne respectively while Joey Banks and Stephen Mercantel show both charm and endurance as Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby. Of particular note the evening I attended were Katie Kohler, Lara Wright and Bernadette Nason, all of whom embraced a commitment and enthusiasm for their characters that gave them a particular shine.
The production, as a truly brilliant concept modeled after the original by Bedlam Theatre in New York, shows us, with great clarity, exactly how theatre relies on the creativity of storytelling and the imagination of an audience. This is clever stagecraft that blows up Austen's worldview without mockery or insult. It's a feat to master, as this style can send a show off the rails into a sort of parody in the wrong hands. Director Lara Toner keeps the cast in check, successfully blocks the tricky navigation of dozens and dozens of scene changes, and mostly succeeds at retaining the wry spirit of an Austen story. I say mostly because on the night I attended a large part of my attention was on the physical action on the stage. Actors in this production create vast activity and simultaneously balance this with the ability to make these characters believable. In the face of such theatricality happening around them, this is a tough job. As such, this is perfect way to introduce new audiences who, like me, might otherwise take or leave it, to Austen's work. Purists, on the other hand, might not enjoy such a romp. The production style itself is a kind of dazzling character in the show that can be at odds with the audience's ability to create a relationship with Austen's characters. These are impressive and appropriate production choices. However, they might leave Austen fans who are expecting a pastoral and charming experience wanting. Nevertheless, it remains a delightful show. On the whole, this production of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY is well executed, entertaining, and quite worthy of attention. To paraphrase Austen, Austin Playhouse "does justice to its solid worth."
SENSE AND SENSIBILITY
Adapted by Kate Hamill
From the novel by Jane Austen
Directed by Lara Toner
March 31- April 30