Monday, September 19, 2016

A Sensational Sense and Sensibility

Jane Austen fans should be very pleased....

Photo by Dan Norman.
...With the latest offering from the Guthrie theater. In the tradition of the best Austen adaptations, from Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility to Gwenyth Paltrow's Emma to Clueless to Bridget Jones, the current staging of Sense and Sensibility retains all the Edwardian charm of the period while remaining incisively on point as a piece of cultural criticism that feels right at home in the 2010s.
Photo by Dan Norman. 
Sense and Sensibility follows the foibles of the two eldest Dashwood sisters as they and their mother and younger sister are forced from their childhood home after the death of their father. The girls couldn't be more different; Elinor, the eldest, is reserved and incisive, always thinking five steps ahead. Marianne is emotional and impetuous, reveling in life without care to others' opinions. The girls fall in and out of love with several men throughout the show for completely different reasons, and each learns something unique and important through the problems of her relationships. As these relationships are the entire crux of the story I won't give away their details, but suffice it to say if you've encountered any Austen you probably know about the kind of character these gentlemen possess and how it all rolls out in the end.
Photo by Dan Norman. 
This is a super engaging production for many reasons, the primary being that it features the work of some greatly talented women from top to bottom. It's not only based on a book authored by a woman (Austen) but was adapted for stage by a woman (Kate Hamill), directed by a woman (Sarah Rasmussen), has a predominantly female production team (including the scenic designer, costume designer, vocal coach, dramaturg and both stage managers) and features strong female lead performances (a very Kate Winslet-esque turn as Marianne from Alejandra Escalante and a riveting, pitch perfect performance of Elinor from the exquisite Jolly Abraham. Look out for Abraham; she's the new Gugu Mbatha-Raw and she is going to go places).

This excellent anchor provided by the XX chromosome team is complemented by charming performances from the male half of the cast. Remy Auberjonois is stiffly heartwarming as the upright Colonel Brandon and John Catron *nails* the oeuvre of Colin Firth as Elinor's love Edward Ferrars. Other supporting cast fit their roles as well, including Suzanne Warmanene as Mrs. Dashwood and a completely winning performance from Isadora Swann as the very young sister Margaret Dashwood.
Photo by Dan Norman. 
The set in general is simple but elegant. It appears the bulk of efforts were (smartly) spent on creating a gorgeous parquet floor, the center of which revolves to ingenious effect. For example, to portray a dining room scene each character sits facing the audience from the exterior of the circle and we are able to see each of their dining habits, manners and expressions as the conversation commences. Similarly, a carriage is created out of a settee, a chair, and some artful seating arrangements, set in motion once the floor begins to rotate (this neat trick had the audience break out into spontaneous applause). The blocking is not only innovative but charming and lends a downright modern/abstract feel to the play. It's a simple thing but keeps the set very fresh and clears the audience's attention for the action on stage. Costumes are similarly elementary but gorgeous and each perfectly suited to the character's needs.
Photo by Dan Norman. 
Something about Jane Austen has always felt timeless but this staging felt particularly relevant to me. In an age of constant FOMO, when we are drowning in social media and unsolicited opinions and unable to escape gossip even if we try our hardest, Sense and Sensibility provides a prudent reminder that a) other people's opinions shouldn't make a difference to your personal happiness but also that b) someone is always watching. Live your life as you will and do it with fortitude, but understand that both of these things are true and you will need a thick skin some days when people can't mind their own business.
Photo by Dan Norman.
Jane Austen is one of the first clear feminists left to us by history. Her crystal clear call for female independence, for insisting on featuring a diverse cast of women at the centers of each of her stories, valuing intelligence and resourcefulness over appearance and wealth, unashamed vilification of men who take selfish advantage of women, and general advocacy for all of us to just stop being so damn nosy all the time are poignant lessons in the age of social media and the Stanford rapist (Brock Turner = John Willoughby; we all know it). Aside from being just a delightful staging and really fun ladies night out, Sense and Sensibility has wisdom to pass on. Make sure you enjoy partaking of it - it's worth it. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.