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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Kate Hamill's Shakespearean adaptation of Sense & Sensibility at the Folger & in NYC

In further reply to Nancy's request for tales of the recently concluded JASNA AGM in Washington DC, I will now speak about one of the two highlights for me -- seeing the stage adaptation of Sense & Sensibility at the Folger Library theatre. Here are four links describing it:

Kate Hamill’s adaptation, which originated off Broadway in NYC a couple of years ago, is firstrate in all respects. I honestly can’t think of anything I didn’t like, and that is rare. In the course of 160 minutes of decidedly unsquirmy watching, pretty much the entire story of the novel gets told, and told well. Hamill’s seamless blending of the novel’s dialog and Hamill’s own is remarkably well executed—just as with Whit Stillman’s film Love and Friendship (aka Lady Susan), excellent taste and discretion is shown in that delicate enterprise. There is a nice blend of humor, romance, and pathos in what is selected for enactment from the novel text, very much in the spirit of Emma Thompson’s iconic 1994 film version, especially in the way that the loving, contentious relationship between the elder Dashwood sisters is brought to vivid life, but this play is by no means a knockoff of Thompson.

The one surprise was the way Edward was depicted--not the endearing, quiet, sad way Hugh Grant played him, but as more of a fool and buffoon, i.e., more like his brother Robert, who is even more over the top in this production. But that was okay with me, because I am one who finds the Edward Ferrars of the novel to be an extremely compromised hero – Hugh Grant is NOT Jane Austen’s Edward---just as I see Edmund Bertram as less than an attractive marital option for Fanny in MP.

The performers were uniformly excellent, even spectacular; totally professional and often inspired, the small cast effortlessly handling the doubling of many of the roles. My special personal favorite was Caroline Stefanie Clay, who was an overpowering force of nature in the role of Mrs. Jennings.

Here’s what I wrote about Hamill’s production in February, after reading Brantley’s review and before I knew I’d get to see it at the Folger:

“While you should read Brantley’s cogent review in its entirety, I was particularly struck by vivid this description:
“And suddenly, they’re all talking at once, wildly and obsessively — to us, to one another, to themselves. What we’re hearing is a whirlwind of gossip, of voices bearing conflicting truths and falsehoods about love affairs and scandals, independent incomes and inherited real estate. Such gossip is the architect of Austen’s society. And perhaps the most ingenious element of Mr. Tucker’s production is its use of gossip as the force that shapes the destinies of Austen’s characters. No matter how private the scene, there are always eavesdroppers nearby, waiting to spread and reconfigure the latest rumors.”

That tells me that Hamill has understood just how crucial the sense of claustrophobic conversation, subject to constant risk of overhearing, is in all Jane Austen’s novels (and her letters, for that matter). It  results in one drawing-room tete-a-tete and ensemble after another, some of which are subtler versions of the famous scenes in Much Ado About Nothing, when the matchmaking pranksters stage performances of “accidental” eavesdropping, in order to gull Beatrice and Benedick into acknowledging their repressed love for each other.” END QUOTE

I can say now, after actually seeing the play, that Hamill was, to my eyes, acutely aware of the Shakespearean romantic comedy aspects of S&S, because I had a sense, as I watched, that I almost could be watching a lost Shakespeare play written in prose – it really was that good! She is a play-writing talent to be reckoned with!

My seat in the balcony, stage right along the front of the stage, looking down at the performers, was a unique, interesting perspective from which to observe the very clever staging which all the reviews have praised, involving the never ending sliding of chairs to and fro around the stage in a kaleidoscope of shifting scenes that generated a great deal of variety and nuance with minimal props.

That staging ingenuity reminded me a lot of the production of Pride & Prejudice at the Enso Theatre here in Portland that I saw and enjoyed a lot earlier this year, and now I suspect that Kate Lushington might have seen Hamill’s adaptation first, and drew wonderful inspiration from it. This is a way of updating Jane Austen without sacrificing the core novel, which is what I found unsatisfying about video adaptations like The Lizzy Bennet Diaries , which are at heart fanfic that take enormous liberties  with Austen’s story.

Hamill’s adaptation will not shed surprising light on Austen’s novel for any longtime Janeite, but it does bring the novel to life in a vibrant, entertaining, witty fashion, and that is good enough for me! So, if you get a chance to see this production anytime soon, see it! Its run has been extended till Nov. 13 at the Folger in DC (theatre capacity about 300, by my visual count), and, after a pause, it is running again in NYC, with no end in sight, which is no surprise given the universal thumbs up word of mouth (forgive my mixing metaphors) the show has so deservedly received.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode onTwitter

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