Jane Austen, upended

Kate Hamill's Sense and Sensibility at Portland Center Stage is a lively, bawdy, physical comedy, somehow faithful to the 1811 novel.

If you know anything about Jane Austen and/or Sense & Sensibility, you’ll be surprised to arrive at the Armory to find actors mingling on stage in contemporary dress, in what could very well be a modern-day apartment. This continues until the play starts, when ultra-modern dance music starts and the cast members shake their contemporary bodies.

As they dance, 19th-century music begins to play as, one by one (or two by two), the cast members shed their modern-day clothing for flowing white undergarments, which they’ll wear in various forms for the remainder of the play.

No, this is not your typical Jane Austen. And it’s not your typical theater production, either. Instead, playwright Kate Hamill — inspired by the dearth of roles for women in theater — has created something entirely unique: a lively, bawdy, physical comedy centering on the lives of women that feels far removed from and yet somehow faithful to the 1811 novel.

Quinlan Fitzgerald (center) is suitably charming to both suitors and audiences in “Sense and Sensibility” at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Credit for the intense theatricality of this production, though, has to be at least partially given to director Eric Tucker (who has directed previous productions of this play, first at Bedlam, the theater company in New York where Tucker is artistic director). Tucker’s direction calls for acrobatics and pratfalls and upended scene staging (so that actors perform and staging is carried out in such a way that the audience is looking down on the scene from above; you have to see it to really believe it, but it’s marvelous).

For this production, Portland Center Stage and Tucker have assembled a fabulous and agile cast of characters. Most members of the cast take on multiple roles, including the gossips that are so prevalent and destructive in the lives of our protagonists, the elder Dashwood sisters of Austen’s novel. Those two sisters are wonderful counterpoints to one another: the reserved and resolute Elinor (Danea C. Osseni, returning to PCS after portraying Nettie in last fall’s beloved production of The Color Purple) and the passionate and fun-seeking Marianne (Quinlan Fitzgerald, who is fabulous and scene-stealing, and whom audiences will fall for right along with her onstage suitors).

Some of the casting choices are hard to figure. For instance, Lisa Birnbaum, playing the Dashwood girls’ mother, and Violeta Picayo, in the role of their adolescent sister, appear to be similar ages. While their performances are both good and their acting helps you discern who is supposed to be which age, it’s hard not to wonder why they didn’t cast older (or use makeup for the effect) for Mrs. Dashwood and younger for Margaret.

That aside, the cast is fantastic: Kelly Godell is perfect as Fanny, the annoying and mean sister-in-law to the Dashwoods; and Lucy Steele, the also annoying and mean competition for Elinor. Darius Pierce is memorable in several roles, particularly as Sir John Middleton and when he fills in for Godell when her two characters end up in a brawl. Chris Murray is as charming and slimy as he needs to be as John Willoughby, and hilarious as Fanny’s suppressed husband. Ryan Quinn is a Colonel Brandon that will have you wondering why Marianne won’t just fall in love with him already. Lauren Modica is funny and raunchy as the ultimate gossip, Mrs. Jennings. And Jamie Smithson shows how talented he is when he gets to play against the type of his primary character (Elinor’s love interest, Edward Ferrars) by playing his dorky brother, Robert, who has a strange obsession with … cottages.

Visual bedlam: Chris Murray and Kelly Godell, upstanding and under the covers. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

And, in addition to reading the sometimes lengthy lines of Hamill’s script at Tucker’s fast pace, the actors have to dance and fall and run into things — and deal with the set moving almost constantly around them.

The scenic design by John McDermott is one of the truly amazing feats of this production: Chairs slide in and out and across the stage. Tables are turned (literally) mid-conversation. And the whole backdrop is a gorgeous projected outdoor meadow of greens and blues with a furniture-crammed room in the very middle of it, just behind the action on stage. If you find yourself getting bored of the Dashwoods’ love lives by the end of the three-hour show, you can always study the gorgeous background and the overly furnished room. (It would be a little easier to study it all with a bit brighter lighting; some scenes were unnecessarily dim.)

While the production runs a little longer than it needs to (and about 45 minutes longer than Tucker’s New York production), there is so much to love and the cast seems to be having so much fun (almost bringing each other into fits of laughter a time or two) that it’s hard to fault them for wanting it to go on. You might well want that, too.

 

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