Spine: Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ at Folger Theatre

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Oh, what a difference 200 years make!

Jane Austen’s novel, Sense and Sensibility, was published anonymously in 1811.

John Willoughby (Jacob Fishel and Marianne Dashwood (Erin Weaver) on a horse carriage ride. Photo by Teresa Wood. Also pictured: L to R: Michael Glenn, Lisa Birnbaum, Caroline Stephanie Clay, Nicole Kang and Jamie Smithson.
John Willoughby (Jacob Fishel) and Marianne Dashwood (Erin Weaver) on a horse carriage ride. Photo by Teresa Wood. Also pictured: L to R: Michael Glenn, Lisa Birnbaum, Caroline Stephanie Clay, Nicole Kang and Jamie Smithson.

Folger’s Sense and Sensibility, adapted by Kate Hamill and directed by Eric Tucker, brings that novel soaring into the 21st century.

And they do it not by updating the characters. Oh no! The Dashwood women–Mrs. Dashwood (a stoic Lisa Birnbaum) and her daughters Elinor (a proper Maggie McDowell), Marianne (an impetuous Erin Weaver), and Margaret (a pouting Nicole Kang)–are all still quite chained by 19th century societal convention and legal loopholes.

What’s 21st century about this production is its mode of delivery.

Actors still do and feel as their characters do and feel, but now the actors also just do: they physicalize the character’s mental states of being and feeling and loving with wondrous invention.

And how that invention shakes, rattles, and rolls the Folger’s boards.

The cast of 'Sense and Sensibility.' Photo by Jesse Belsky.
The cast of ‘Sense and Sensibility.’ Photo by Jesse Belsky.

Hamill and Tucker have teamed up to bring audiences a rousingly emotional physical 21st century extravaganza draped in the linen of 1800.

As the story unfolds, tables spin mid-scene; door jambs rotate; actors pivot, with dialogue almost uninterrupted.

A character is asked to sit and a chair rolls into view as that character’s rear end begins to descend.

An actor plays a sister, but then scoots across the stage to play the mother of her lover as she enters the room.

Windows circle; characters circle, each caught in his or her own net of social dictates. Whose face will next be plastered and framed by a window, as if in snap-chat: a face grimaces as the leverage of money applies its pressure.

And yet, when the chaos crescendos, colored lights, as in a dance-ball spinning, pique the action.

At no point should you enter the Folger’s Sense and Sensibility expecting the predictable. In fact, even before the curtain rises–(of course, there is no curtain at the Folger)–when actors enter in undergarments, 1800’s style undergarments, to mingle and play, not so much with the audience as with themselves, while contemporary music jams the auditorium, you’ll begin to suspect something’s a wee-bit different.

Mr. Dashwood (James Patrick Nelson) on his deathbed. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Mr. Dashwood (James Patrick Nelson) on his deathbed. Photo by Teresa Wood.

A conflation of time and space, perhaps.

Whatever the cause, a set has never changed so much in all the world.

Designed by John McDermott, with lighting by Jesse Belsky and choreography by Alexandra Beller, the set becomes a living, breathing “thing” that is as wedded to the characters and their actions as Elinor and Marianne hope to some day be wedded to Edward Ferrars (a painfully reticent Jamie Smithson) and John Willoughby (a roguishly sweet Jacob Fishel).

If this cast isn’t nominated for an Outstanding Ensemble Hayes award I’ll be shocked. The precision and syncopation exuded by every movement of their choreography delights the audience.

And all the while the story unfolds, much to the credit of Adaptor Kate Hamill, who clearly worked closely with Director Eric Tucker. Both are members of Bedlam: Kate is a company member and Eric is the Artistic Director.

The fusion of word and action proved itself a feast. And I’m still savoring the taste.

Running Time: Two Hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.

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Sense and Sensibility plays through October 30, 2016 at the Folger Theatre – 201 East Capitol Street SE,  in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 544-7077, or purchase them online.

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Robert Michael Oliver
Poet, Performer, Theatre Artist, Playwright, Educator, Writer--Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., has been involved in the DC arts scene since the 1980s, when he co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in the old sanctuary of Calvary United Methodist Church. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theatre from University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theatre as a reviewer over the last two years than he saw in the previous thirty. He now co-directs, along with his wife Elizabeth Bruce, the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project, which organizes a host of writing and performance workshops, plus Mementos: Poetry and Performance for Seniors, a yearly literature-in-performance Fringe Festival show, as well as Performetry--a monthly poetry and prose performance event at DC's community arts & culture center BloomBars.