Sense and Sensibility
|Emily Ota & Nancy Rodriguez|
The beloved books of Jane Austen have found their way onto the British and American stages over and again in the past twenty or so years. Palo Alto’s TheatreWorks Silicon Valley alone has twice staged Paul Gordon’s Emma,each time to huge acclaim and record audiences, and is featuring a reading of his new Pride and Prejudice at their New Works Festival this August. That same company offered the American premiere of the British Sense and Sensibility by Roger Parsley and Andy Graham, one of at least four adapted versions to grace recent American stages (including one as a musical). Certainly, interest is high to stage the story of the Dashwood sisters who find themselves lacking many prospects of marriage after their father dies and his son decides to exclude his step-mother and step-sisters from the inheritance that only went to him, the sole male survivor.
This season, Oregon Shakespeare Festival features yet another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, one that premiered Off-Broadway in 2014 by Kate Hamill. While that opening did glean much critical acclaim – the Huffington Post calling it “the greatest stage adaptation on this novel in history” – the current, West Coast premiere at OSF, as directed by Hana S. Sharif, loses much of the angst and heart of Jane Austen’s original.
Ms. Hamill’s inclusion of a Greek-like chorus of Gossips too often draws attention away from the Dashwood sisters’ compelling story. Their upturned-nose, shrill-voiced, and mostly inane comments are mostly of a busy body, rumor-spreading nature. The device is funny at first but soon wears its welcome as the play progresses. The ever-present onlookers intervene quite frequently, sometimes making it difficult to ascertain if they are once again speaking as Gossips or if they are now playing their primary roles (since each Gossip also plays one or more of the story’s main characters).
In the late eighteenth century world of Jane Austen’s time – especially among the more genteel parts of society – finding a husband of fine family and financial means was the sole path offered a young woman who wanted to live what others (and probably she) saw as a happy, fulfilling life. But as is still usually true today, money only begets money. When the Dashwood sisters are left to fare via the charity of a cousin after being excluded from any of their father’s vast wealth, their fate for future happiness appears to everyone – especially the local gossips — as unsure. The oldest sister, Elinor, already has seen the prospects of her budding relationship with one Edward Ferrars (Armando McClain) begin to fade because his mother seems to have no inclination for him to marry a girl with an old, family name but with no financial fortune.
|Nancy Rodriguez & Emily Ota|
Nancy Rodriguez, as this oldest sister Elinor, is more reserved, serious, and tempered in her responses to the changing lots in their lives than her other, two sisters. More than once she echoes the play’s title through such statements as, “Sense will always have an attraction for me.” Her closest-in-age sister, Marianne, is much more the quick reactor and the mover and shaker, with Emily Ota providing a forceful portrayal of a headstrong young woman who is quick to ride emotional waves without much care who sees or hears. Her Elinor also means to lose no provided opportunity to ensure both her and her sister’s matrimonial successes. Rounding out the sibling threesome (and much less central to the story) is a much younger, rambunctious, and often mischievous Margaret, played with a mixture of brat, cute, and precocious by Samantha Miller.
|Nancy Rodriguez, Armando McClain & Emily Ota|
When the family of females moves to the cottage abode offered by the cousin of Mrs. Dashwood (a mostly restrained and dignified Kate Mulligan), various men happen into the lives of Elinor and Marianne, with attractions going both ways but not always immediately as a matched pairing. Kevin Kenerly is a kindly, aging bachelor, Colonel Brandon, who, when introduced to the family, cannot take his eyes off Marianne. He tries to make some conversation in a speech pattern full of short phrases, pauses, and even (some might say boring) tone’ but Marianne has no interest at all in this man she likes to mock behind his back. That leaves Elinor to be the more polite hostess, one who begins to strike up a more platonic (at least at first) friendship with him.
|Nancy Rodriguez & Nate Cheeseman|
Impetuous Marianne, against the warning of her cautious older sister, heads for a walk and gets caught in a rainstorm, only to be rescued in the arms by a rather dashing gentleman and bachelor, John Willoughby. Immediately, Marianne falls for the rather saucy, pleasingly sarcastic Mr. Willoughby (played by Nate Cheeseman); and from all early indications of his frequent visits and their walks in the woods (providing great fodder for the gossips), it appears that he feels the same for her.
But Jane Austen does not let any path to matrimony for either sister come too easily. Twists and turns aplenty occur as prior engagements (unknown to the Dashwoods), histories of spurned relationships, and sudden disappearances just when things are looking ripe for a proposal all seem to provide dead ends to anything but possible lives as spinsters.
|K.T. Vogt with the Sisters|
Through it all, various other relatives and characters enter the scene to offer advice, comfort, chiding, and/or complications. In this version as scripted by Kate Hamill and as cast/directed at OSF, more times than not, such persons are exaggerated to the point of near buffoons. Chief and best among these is Mrs. Jennings, mother-in-law to Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin and now-benefactor, Sir John Middleton. K.T. Vogt is hilarious in multiple ways as the eccentric, excited, and explosive (especially in loud laughter) Mrs. Jennings. With hands that fly about almost as wildly as her ever-quick tongue, K.T. Vogt is the kind of bizarre addition ready to steal the show at any moment. (She is greatly aided by the fabulously overly-done-in-every-way attire that costume designer Fabio Toblini provides her).
Had this OSF version of Sense and Sensibility only featured Mrs. Jennings as its one eccentric, then the story of the Dashwood sisters’ dilemmas might have been given more space to develop an emotional appeal where we as audience really care what happens. However, in this version the story is interrupted not only by the ongoing blathering by the Gossips, but also by the often clownish, high-pitched, guffawing mannerisms of a number of other characters.
Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin Sir John Middleton (Michael J. Hume); his wife, Lady Middleton (Lauren Modica); and a socially inept Anne Steele (played also by Lauren Modica) along with even the selfish step-brother John Dashwood (Brent Hinkley) are all scripted and/or directed to be caricatures. So many exist that the heart and soul of Sense and Sensibilityis too often lost amid abrupt, high-octave laughs or by mannerisms that make fun of their aristocratic come-ons. And after repeated doses, the intended humor less and less hits its target.
In the end, compared with other stage (and film) versions of Jane Austen novels that I have seen, Kate Hamill’s Sense and Sensibility — as currently produced by the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival — is at best, a so-so outing. I find the comic diversions to be too many for this particular story, often even causing the pace to seem overly slow and the flow of action, ponderous. The saving grace of the production is in the two elder sisters and their three suitors, but even their excellent performances cannot fully meet the intent of the original Jane Austen classic.
Rating: 3 E
Sense and Sensibility continues through October 28, 2018 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Tickets are available at https://www.osfashland.org/on-stage.
Photos by Jenny Graham
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