BWW Review: Nashville Rep's Stylish Take on Jane Austen's SENSE AND SENSIBILITY
There is no mistaking the incisive wit of Jane Austen's rather genteel evisceration of the British aristocracy and landed gentry to be found in Sense and Sensibility, the thoroughly delightful and completely engaging adaptation by Kate Hamill that opens Nashville Repertory Theatre's 2017-18 season. In gleeful style, director Rene D. Copeland and her 10-person ensemble bring Hamill's script and Austen's characters to life in a production that might best be described as sparkling and polished.
With another dazzling Gary C. Hoff-designed set upon which to play out their tale of the machinations of the British upper class during the Georgian era, Copeland and her coterie of actors perform the script with an air of lightness and charm fueled by their flights of fancy and a sense of sheer abandon that ensures their audiences, watching with rapt attention from the very first moments of the play, will remain so until the final eventful scene is played out before them.
Hamill's Sense and Sensibility is a stylish and beautifully staged two-and-one-half hours of theatrical merriment that scintillates and delights, occasionally pulling at the heartstrings and stirring up all manner of romantic notions in the process. The playwright's ability to enliven Austen's beloved story of the Dashwood Sisters - upon whom fate and the particular social conceits of their time have heaped more than their share of despair - with a lighter-than-air quality will ensure that 21st century audiences, even those who've always pooh-poohed the notion of giving Austen's work even a cursory glance, will find much to interest them, possibly even becoming intrigued by the drawing room gossip and scandal that energizes the well-to-do while they share tea and biscuits in settings both bucolic and convivial.
Who doesn't love a juicy story to ruminate over? I would suspect, however, that even the most ardent of Austen admirers will find much to their liking in Hamill's sharply written script which maintains a certain level of respect and admiration for the intentions of its creator's original efforts. Instead, Hamill seems to have opened up the vista of Austen's world to a larger audience made more current by the passage of time and the sensory assault upon them by any number of contemporary developments. For all intents and purposes, gossip and scandal have always titillated the masses and, in that manner, today's audiences are not that far removed from their far less media-assaulted forebears.
Nashville Rep audiences have come to expect beautifully executed scenic design and remarkably recreated costumes of a particular era to help usher them gracefully into other times and places via the stage magic crafted by the company of artists who have made Nashville a theater-going, magic-making city of creative types. Copeland confidently leads her compatriots through Austen's world, as viewed through the particular focus of Hamill's perspective, to bring to vivid life a world of supposed respectability and the adherence to societal rules. It's a world replete with tasteful, somewhat elegant, traditions that eschew individuality and rewards conformity.
Hoff's set allows for any number of locales to be represented on the stage of the AnDrew Johnson Theatre, cleverly moving the action from the country homes and vistas of Sussex to Devonshire to the complexities of city life found in London in winter. Thanks to Hoff's artistry, Copeland her actors are given tremendous freedom in recreating the various scenes in the play to full effect, even while delighting audiences with a sense of wonder at how capably and creatively they may do so.
Intricately choreographed and stunningly staged so that the play's action seems ever moving, with each scene making an easy transition to the next, Sense and Sensibility is played out with an effortlessness that belies the hours of preparation that has gone into the production. Clearly, it represents the wonders of live theater that continue to entertain and to elucidate at the same moment.
Copeland's ensemble is made up of actors, each perfectly cast for their ability to bring the characters to life with such energy and spirit that it's easy to forget someone you've seen onstage so frequently over the years that they seem unrecognizable as they transform from one character to another. Emily Landham, whose absence from local stages has been far too long, is absolutely ideal as Elinor Dashwood, the more serious and even-handed of the trio of daughters at the center of the story. Her younger sisters - the spirited Marianne, played with much heart by Morgan Davis, and Margaret (Alaina Smith) - are equally well-defined and the three of them present their mother, portrayed with maternal grace and dignity by the versatile Cheryl White (her performance as Anne Steele allows her to show off superb comic timing), with a lively, if challenging, life following the death of their father, which leads to their displacement from the family home and the loss of the family fortune. Landham's focus is resolute throughout, while Elinor's more dramatic moments underscore her commitment to the role, while Davis plays Marianne with a convincing blend of fortitude and effervescent charm to grand effect.
As the men in their life, Eric Pasto-Crosby, Christopher Strand and Santiago Sosa craft perfectly etched portraits of men of the era. Pasto-Crosby is superb as the bumbling, if immensely appealing, Edward Ferrar (and as his off-putting, strutting younger brother Robert), and it is clear from the start that he and Landham's Elinor are fated for each other. Strand is warmly received as Colonel Brandon, who longs to win the affections of the lovely Marianne, despite her predisposition to the more worldly and more wildly romantic John Willoughby, played by Sosa with his dark good looks and winning personality that is presented in relief against his foppishly fey performance as John Dashwood.
Lauren Berst is regal and overbearing as Fanny Ferrars Dashwood which makes her subsequent portrayal of Lucy Steele all the more outrageous and amusing. Berst and White very nearly threaten to steal the show from the remainder of the cast in their riotous pairing as the Steele sisters.
Rona Carter, one of Nashville's most beloved and gifted actresses, makes the most of her every moment onstage much to the delight of the audience, while Shawn Knight continues to add to his burgeoning resume, with his remarkable range and commitment to even the smallest of onstage moments.
The production's design elements are extraordinary, with an eye-popping palette of colors providing nothing less than a delicious visual feast (pale blues, greens and pinks are augmented by lavenders and purples and mauves) and TrisH Clark clads the actors in exquisite period costumes. Phillip Franck's lighting illuminates the onstage action with finesse, while Randy Craft's sound design adds an auditory fillip to the evening's experience. Noteworthy, as well, is Pam Atha's choreography which adds fancy footwork to the overall impact of the show.
Sense and Sensibility. By Kate Hamill. Based on the novel by Jane Austen. Directed by Rene D. Copeland. Presented by Nashville Repertory Theatre at the AnDrew Johnson Theatre at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Running through September 23. Go to www.NashvilleRep.org for details and ticket information. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).