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Jane Austen's Characters: Living, Breathing, Sweating

Date: Feb 04, 2016

Inside Bedlam's lively take on Sense & Sensibility


The creators and stars of Bedlam's Sense & Sensibility are well aware that Jane Austen fans, a notoriously devoted and opinionated group, are going to bring a very critical eye to their adaptation of her beloved novel. As points of comparison, there are already plenty of other interpretations of the story, about the Dashwood sisters and their two very different approaches to finding love and stability after being cast out of their home when their father dies. Fans might place the current production, which is currently at the Gym at Judson Church, next to the Oscar-winning 1995 film starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, or if they're feeling adventurous, the 2009 hybrid novel called Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

"My introduction to Austen was when I was 11 and had the flu," recalls Andrus Nichols, the producing director and co-founder of Bedlam, who plays the steady, common-sense oldest sister Elinor. "My mom hooked me up with VHS tapes of one of the original BBC miniseries. I think it was nine hours long, and I watched it twice through."

Bedlam, known for its stripped-down interpretations of the classics, creates a different kind of hybrid with this production, which it first staged in 2014 (though thankfully, no sea creatures are involved). While the script remains completely faithful to the speech, style, and soul of the novel, the production sizzles with a madcap energy that makes the turn-of-the-19th-century characters come vibrantly to life. "These are living, breathing human beings who sweat and have sexual drives and go to the bathroom in chamber pots," says Kate Hamill, who not only plays the romantic, impulsive sister Marianne but also wrote the adaptation. "The way Eric [Tucker] directed this production, you really see not just the theatricality and magic, but you get the sense that these are real people suffering and living. It really shakes up what people think Austen is."

And there is no shortage of magic: Using nothing more high-tech than the imagination and muscle of the 10-member cast, furniture zooms across the stage, actors instantly transform into horses and carriages, and a man and woman switch off playing the same character in the same scene with barely a blink in the action. "Everyone in this cast is so game and willing to chime in with creative ideas, and turn upside down like a beetle if needed to make a scene work," says Nichols.


The intimacy of the Gym at Judson, where audiences sit in folding chairs surrounding the action while the actors gossip right in their ears, enhances the claustrophobic sense of judgment that oppresses the Dashwoods. "For me, this story is about your reaction to social pressures—do you follow the rules or do you break the rules?" Hamill says. "There are big consequences to both those things, particularly for women, and particularly for underprivileged people like the Dashwoods. I wanted to create this sense that people are always watching and listening and judging them. Of course there are great romances in Austen, but I really wanted to focus on the humor and social commentary."

Audiences who remember Bedlam's modernized visions of Hamlet and Saint Joan might be surprised that for this production, the cast goes full Regency, from the women's empire-waist dresses down to the men's stockings and period-appropriate underwear. "We had done our first shows in street clothes, with just four actors who came in mingling with the audience, as if we had just walked in and were having the experience together," says Tucker. "Part of the reason for that is we didn't have a very big budget, and it was a simple way of letting the audience just hear the story and imagine the period costumes and other things we were describing."

Though Sense & Sensibility has both a bigger budget and a bigger cast, Tucker explains that he wanted to give a nod to the company's beginnings. So as you take your seats, expect to see actors in hoodies and denim jackets grooving to the likes of "Uptown Funk." Within minutes—and via some clever choreography—those same actors have successfully turned back the clock about 200 years.

Lest you think that all the clever staging and focus on social commentary takes away from the delirious romance of the story, rest assured that at a recent preview performance, half the audience was spotted wiping away tears at a particularly poignant moment, while a gentleman in the crowd couldn't help but burst out with "How wonderful!" And if Bedlam's interpretation meets with the approval of the most hard-core Jane-ites, they can clear their schedules for the next few seasons: Hamill is busy at work adapting Austen's five later novels as well.


TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for Sense & Sensibility. Click here to see all our current offers.

Marisa Cohen is a freelance writer in New York who can be heard singing show tunes with her two daughters at all hours of the day.

Photos by Ashley Garrett. Top photo: Jason O'Connell, Kate Hamill, and John Russell.