Review: Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” at The Gym at Judson (Extended through October 2, 2016)

Off-Broadway Review: "Sense and Sensibility" at the Gym at Judson (Extended through October 2, 2016)
By Jane Austen, Adapted for the Stage by Kate Hamill
Directed by Eric Tucker
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“Quiet please. It’s Jane Austen. Sit still and pay attention so you don’t miss anything. She’s tough to understand sometimes.” None of these admonitions or warnings are relevant when watching Bedlam’s production of Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” adapted for the stage by Kate Hamill and currently playing at The Gym at Judson in Manhattan. Bedlam’s stage version of this iconic piece is without question one of the best pieces of theatre in Manhattan and assuredly one of the best stage adaptations of Austen’s classic tale.

Bedlam’s production is fresh, buoyant, engaging, and richly authentic. The story of Elinor Dashwood’s (Bedlam co-founder Andrus Nichols) and her sister Marianne Dashwood’s (Kate Hamill) turbulent love affairs with Edward Ferrars (Jason O’Connell) and John Willoughby (John Russell) is wonderfully accessible in this production and is given remarkable believability and relevance by Bedlam’s cast and creative team. Austen’s dense writing – replete with minute detail – could not be more clear here and could not give the audience more exuberant joy as Ms. Hamill’s adaptation untangles Austen’s web of intrigue and reveals how Elinor’s “sense” and Marianne’s “sensibility” eventually reward their efforts to understand and find love and their efforts to navigate their provincial male-dominated and wealth-bedeviled society.

Members of the talented ensemble cast portray several characters (John Russell, for example, plays both John Dashwood and John Willoughby) and the ever-present and seemingly omniscient gaggle of gossipy members of the Devonshire and London communities that serve as the play’s settings. Each delivers authentic and honest portrayals of their characters. For instance, Laura Baranik portrays the cold and selfish Fanny Dashwood with a robotic snap of the neck that chills even the faintest generous streak in her husband John. Andrus Nichols stands taller than her natural frame as Elinor Dashwood and Kate Hamill’s Marianne Dashwood knows no boundaries or limits to her emotional and spiritual dynamism.

Bedlam’s “Sense and Sensibility” is transformative theatre, groundbreaking theatre, immersive theatre, theatre not to be missed. Eric Tucker’s staging is sparse and inventive. Setting is provided by landscapes hanging on the walls of the Gym at Judson, a few trellises, a rolling door frame, some tables and chairs on wheels, and three hanging chandeliers. The actors either are pushed around or cleverly paddle their way around the stage. It is all brilliant and under Mr. Tucker’s inventive direction this staging allows the core of “Sense and Sensibility” to be revealed in its purest articulation.

Thanks to Bedlam’s willingness to explore new ways to preserve and present theatre, “Sense and Sensibility” need no longer only be understood in the context of its particular culture: this classic is now not only accessible to the present but relevant to this twenty-first century’s attempts to understand not only the vicissitudes of love but also its penchant for accumulating wealth and power. Edward Ferrar’s ability to extricate himself from his mother’s matrix of wealth, greed, and control serves as a dynamic trope for Marianne’s mantra: “You must be driven almost mad by PASSION, by RAGE, by love for the FRAIL BEAUTY OF LIFE ITSELF!”

Bravo Bedlam, Kate Hamill, and Eric Tucker for allowing your ensemble to wander close to us before curtain, prepare themselves in their “no walls” dressing room, and then breathe even closer, look into our eyes and share the pure joy of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility.”