- Annie Evans and Sam Balzac, with Brett Lawlor in the background
Jane Austen supplies the characters, playwright Kate Hamill gooses the plot with modern irony, and Lost Nation Theater hands 12 actors lush Regency costumes to fill some 20 roles in the fast-paced Sense & Sensibility. The adaptation preserves some of the romance but focuses on social satire, taking sweet potshots at a parade of caricatures so beautifully dressed that laughing at them seems only fair.
Though the characters mint the occasional witty rejoinder, the play's prime source of comedy is physical, starting with the furnishings. Regency-style claw feet are replaced with rugged casters on the tables and chairs. Hamill's script calls for the furniture — and its occupants — to be set in motion. The effect is at times exhilarating, as if the hidden energy of genteel ballroom dancing were set free. It's also a neat metaphor of the limits of social mobility. But, above all, it's fun to watch.
Hamill's script sounds a little like a late-night bar bet between thespians. Mix 1810 manners with furniture that scoots across the stage; tell a story with too few actors to fill the roles without doubling; make period costumes sturdy enough for actors to play animals; and create carriages from random bits of scenery and the troupe's aptitude for dance.
Austen devotees aren't likely to be offended by the high-energy high jinks. They'll find virtually all the twists and turns of the plot intact. Some details do get glossed over in expository stampedes, however; one is conducted by a single actor playing two characters, neither of whom gets to finish a sentence. Still, Janeites will find verbatim quotes plus a generally reverent treatment of the novel's sweet sentiments and acerbic view of society.
The play romps through a world in which marriage is a woman's socioeconomic pass-fail test. Austen found subtle veins of satire to mine when commenting on a society that valued outward appearance (and money) above morals. But she wasn't writing off love as illusion, even if her characters often spend far too much time failing to see the suitability of the good men right beneath their noses.
In Hamill's hands, the story is a chance to skewer high society, and so much disdain is whipped up that it leaks out onto anyone's hopes for true love. The pairings of suitable ladies with suitable gentlemen are made to seem artificial, and calling any of it "love" is a self-delusion. Hamill's focus on gossip as a critique of society runs close to critiquing love itself as vanity.
Hamill modernizes Austen with a visual representation of society's unquenchable appetite for scandal. An assortment of onlookers, called Gossips, lurks silently in every scene. Director Kathleen Keenan brings the concept to life by staging the show with wide-eyed eavesdroppers peering behind plants or through windows. The Gossips call attention to how society is governed by a sense of performance and judgment, with rumor as its currency.
Rumors soon fly about the Dashwood sisters. Two of them are of marriageable age, and, after their father has died and a half brother has taken over the estate, the girls, their mother and youngest sister find that they've committed the grand social sin of not having much money. While young Margaret (Amanda Menard, adorably eager) looks on in alternating befuddlement and jealousy, Elinor and Marianne toss their wit and beauty into the marriage market.
Elinor (Annie Evans, keen at conveying inward conflict) is Austen's pillar of "sense," with a thoughtful demeanor, unwavering morals and an aptitude for fearing the worst and keeping her gloom to herself. Marianne (a spirited Katelyn Manfre) personifies "sensibility" with a relentless romanticism that serves her all too well in falling for the wrong man.
Three suitors emerge. Edward Ferrars (Sam Balzac, tender with a hint of torment) and Elinor have a coy battle to see who is shyest about pledging love. In a neat piece of staging, Marianne is literally swept off her feet by the dashing John Willoughby (Michael Dewar, making insincerity alluring). Stouthearted Col. Brandon (Brett Lawlor, quietly, perfectly noble) is too old to marry but just right to trust. All three men are not precisely what they seem, and the plot is so stuffed with real and imagined betrayals, past misdeeds and changes in financial fortune that viewers shouldn't worry about following it. It's the character of the characters that matters.
All but Evans and Manfre play multiple roles, and Keenan's production capitalizes on building quick-sketch characters from idiosyncrasies bold enough to read in an instant. The ensemble players who hover as Gossips or fan little plot flames as lords, ladies and parents rely as much on physical mannerisms as on costumes to paint fools worth mocking. Leon Axt, Mariana Considine, Laura Michelle Erle, Erin Galligan-Baldwin, Eve Passeltiner and Sebastian Ryder provide the broad winks and raised eyebrows that underscore every scene.
Costume designer Rebecca Stewart gives the men beautifully sculpted collars and cuffs and the women fine variations on the high-waisted Regency style. Stewart's gorgeous jacket for Willoughby shows off his vanity so well, it deserves an acting credit. Taryn Noelle's choreography adds little flourishes to every move, making even the simplest gesture wonderfully self-conscious.
Austen's novel is a lovely march through doubt and deception. Hamill turns those interior musings into exterior explosions of public humiliation, halting confrontations and gripping exchanges of scuttlebutt. Even a heart-to-heart chat is conducted on a rotating pouf, and the play creates a world spinning out of control.
This production is careful never to grow truly dizzy and sticks to using overblown mannerisms to land easy laughs. While Elinor and Marianne try to scratch out a little romantic yearning, they're surrounded by a loud society of foppish men and cackling women. Love isn't strong enough here to carry anyone away, but good old centrifugal force makes for some pretty spins.Correction, October 22, 2017: An earlier version of this story misspelled Erin Galligan-Baldwin's name.