Sense and Sensibility – Theatre Review: Mesa Arts Center, Mesa

When writer Kate Hamill’s comically mischievous and energetic adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel, Sense and Sensibility, was first performed by The Bedlam Theatrical Troupe in 2016, reviewers praised the production, mirrored surprisingly by those from the literary world. From the north east to most of the country’s theatrical community, gossip spread; which, when you think about it, is appropriate for a play that focused on things overheard and whispered in confidence to others in order to tell its tale.

The valley’s Southwest Shakespeare Company production of Hamill’s play opened on February 16 and began its run with a little gossip of its own. Talking to a few who saw the show during its opening weekend, it was soon clear that audiences were divided. Some were delighted, others found it confusing, while one person claimed it “clumsy.” True, there’s a somewhat unique approach to the play’s presentation that requires a moment of adjustment before audiences can settle comfortably, and for some, that adjustment may take longer, but for many others, there should be no problem at all.

Unable to attend a performance until its third weekend at Mesa Arts Center (the show concludes next week, March 10) it’s hard to comment on how things may have appeared when it first began. But three weekends later, if there were kinks in the initial presentation that made it either confusing or clumsy, as early gossip suggested, none were evident on the Saturday, March 3 matinee. The play appeared to run as smoothly as the coasters upon which all of the constantly moving set rests.

Beginning almost fifteen minutes before the play officially starts, actors emerged in full Regency Period costumes, talking in character directly to the audience, greeting patrons, asking them how they were doing, even agreeing to selfies. It was like a whirlwind of noise and heavily pronounced English accents as the cast engaged directly, either with us or by gossiping among themselves. The amusing audience warm up was made even more amusing when a recorded announcement suddenly came over the speakers asking everyone to turn off their cell phones; the cast stopped what they were doing and collectively looked above, confused, as if to ask, what on earth is that?

Then they settled onto chairs wheeled on by coasters, and sat attentively while director Patrick Walsh entered, took center stage, and made several company announcements. With a beginning as vibrant as this, it’s a shame there was still a need to interrupt the flow with an opening speech – it breaks the spell when something fun was just established – but once the director made his exit, the cast immediately turned it on. Gossip flowed as all performers suddenly turned in their chairs, either to us or to each other, and erupted into a windstorm of frenzied chit-chat.

The sprawling story of the teenage Dashwood sisters, Elinor (Katherine Stewart), Marianne (Melody Knudson), and the youngest, Margaret (Helen Stewart) as they move from London to a small cottage in Devonshire with their widowed mother (Breona Conrad) is performed by a cast of ten, several doubling in characters, often miming the actions of animals; horses pulling carriages or hounds running wildly, all briefly reminiscent of the 1981 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Nicholas Nickleby. Writer Hamill has streamlined the ongoing romances within the story by filling the void between chapters with gossip. If you’re never quite sure what to think about an exchange between characters, listen closely to the cast as they wheel either more chairs, tables, garden trellises, or sofas and settees on stage – all on coasters – while passing comments to each other about what they just overheard. “I hear Mr. Willoughby visits the Dashwoods every day,” comments one performer. “I thought all the Dashwood girls were wild,” states another.

Austen’s novel and the gossipy, polite manner in which her characters conversed was always funny.  Often when reading, it was necessary to put the novel aside while you allowed the time for what you had just read to properly sink in, then laugh. But the play broadens the comedy further, often to vaudeville lengths. There’s hardly a moment when the sound of voices and the sight of movement stops. Characters circle the principle players listening to what is being said while pushing their chairs around as though simulating a horseless carousel. When it rains, the cast either snap their fingers or slap their thighs, and when the sisters first arrive at the cottage, the full cast rush on, either wildly greeting them with open arms to Devonshire, or barking like hounds running wild on the cottage grounds. It’s only when the sisters are introduced to the seemingly boorish Colonel Brandon (Jeff Deglow) and there’s suddenly nothing to say that movement comes to a standstill and silence follows, except, of course, for the sound of crickets that continues for several very funny seconds.

In addition to those already mentioned, in keeping with the continual flow of motion, Alex Kass, Benjamin Harris, Cody Goulder, and Hannah Fontes shed one character in an instant and become another, often at the literal drop of a hat. And it’s always fun watching Amie Bjorklund’s gossipy Mrs. Jennings moving among the characters and gliding in and out of the proceedings as if she rode on her own set of coasters.

The English accents are a mixed bag; some are good, others sound like characters with a speech impediment, slurring the broadness to an unintentional comical degree, often sounding as though some characters may have had a glass too many at the dinner table and had forgotten the correct pronunciation of certain vowel sounds, but it doesn’t spoil the proceedings. If anything, it makes certain exchanges sound even funnier.

Ultimately, however, at roughly two hours thirty minutes, including intermission, the play’s length feels too long. Director Walsh keeps the proceedings lively, and even though there are moments when things seem in danger of falling apart, they never do. But once you’re accustomed to the play’s comical invention and its rhythms, the style feels stretched. Like the Emma Thompson screenplay for the 1995 film, writer Hamill has narrowed the story well, keeping all the essential plots and characters in place, but somewhere in the second act there’s a feeling that things should now be over with nothing new to see, when in fact, there’s still another fifteen minutes or so to go.

Sense and Sensibility continues at Mesa Art Center until March 10

Pictures Courtesy of Laura Durant of Durant Photography

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