In the Bedlam production of Sense & Sensibility, Top 40 pop music is played prior to curtain (which in this case is just a figure to speech – there is no curtain), and the actors begin the performance dressed in lazywear of hoodies and sweatpants. This gives the initial impression that Jane Austen’s novel about the love lives of the Dashwood sisters will be subject to a stripped-down, “modern” retelling. However, it’s all a bit of theater sleight-of-hand because this introduction simply points out the parallels between the social gossip of today and that of the era of Austen’s novel and then launches into a wildly original, but true to the material, production adapted by Kate Hamill (who also portrays Marianne Dashwood) and director Eric Tucker.
Ten cast members portray all of the key characters from Sense & Sensibility, with several of them doubling roles. Most impressive in that regard is Laura Baranik, who portrays both the tightfisted Fanny Dashwood and the unsophisticated Lucy Steele. Baranik’s voice and body language create distinct characters, and one of the best scenes involves Baranik playing both in the same scene seamlessly (Samantha Steinmetz also does a wonderful job of portraying the otherwise thin character of Mrs. Dashwood and the hilariously dimwitted Anna Steele in the same scene as well). Other standouts include Stephen Wolfert and Gabra Zackman as the comically entertaining duo of Sir John Middleton and Mrs. Jennings, who drive much of the plot with their meddling ways. It would be easy to dislike them because of their nosiness, but Wolfert and Zackman just do such entertaining portrayals that it’s impossible to not enjoy each of their appearances on stage.
One of the best aspects of the production is the constant stage movement, which really drives the momentum of the story. All of the furniture and set pieces are on wheels, which allows them to be moved across the stage by the cast quickly, adding a bit of chaos to the staging. There are also scenes that feature the cast physically creating the staging with their bodies to humorous effect (Bedlam’s interpretation of a stagecoach is one of the clever touches). If you are one who perceives Austen’s work as being stiff, Bedlam’s stage energy removes the starch from the fancy collars (which gives me the opportunity to note the excellent costumes by Wardrobe Supervisor Jessica Kidwell).
Another excellent touch is the adaptation’s focus on how the plot is driven by the unending gossiping of the idle rich. Many scenes are bookended by the cast whispering amongst themselves or peering through the on-stage windows to get a glimpse of a titillating scene between a Dashwood sister and her beau. Like the audience, the characters in the play are watching the proceedings with great interest. They even interact with the audience while doing so, which gives the impression that the gossiping of this community never ends.
The Gym at Judson is a unique performance space that is too spacious to really be called “intimate” but not as cavernous as the high school gym of your teenage years. Bedlam makes superb use of the space by performing in the center of the room, which allows the audience to gaze on the performance from a variety of perspectives.
Most of all, Hamill’s adaptation of Sense & Sensibility highlights the inherent humor of Austen’s work without turning to parody or poking too much fun at the material. Fans of Austen’s novels are already aware of how much fun her work is – Bedlam’s production of Sense & Sensibility will convince everyone else.
SENSE & SENSIBILITY runs at The Gym at Judson (243 Thompson Street, Manhattan) through April 17. For the performance schedule and tickets, visit Bedlam’s website.