Sense & Sensibility

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).

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