Sense and Sensibility at the Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle – A Review

Cast of Book-It Reperatory Theatre's adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility 2011

“Happy, happy Elinor, you cannot have an idea of what I suffer.”

“Do you call me happy, Marianne? Ah; if you knew! And can you believe me to be so while I see you so wretched!”

– Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 29

Happiness and suffering, and the emotional extremes that cause it, is an important theme in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility that was well served in a new stage adaptation of her novel premiering at the Book-It Repertory Theatre on June 3rd at the Centre House Theatre, Seattle Center. It is the Rep’s fourth Austen novel to stage production after the highly successful Pride and Prejudice in 2004, Persuasion in 2008, and Emma in 2010. Their interpretations of Austen are always brisk, lighthearted and memorable. Jane Austen has been very good to the Rep, and obviously, audiences have felt that the Rep has been likewise to Jane Austen.

Book-It Reperatory Theatre's adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibility (2011)Even though Sense and Sensibility is not as light, bright and sparkling as Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice, it may be the most adaptable of her works for the stage. At 200 years old it remains a compelling tale touting a favorable list of dramatic attributes: dual heroines with divergent personalities; three red herring heroes who are really anti-heroes in disguise; and an incredible assortment of unscrupulous and humorous minor characters that add levity and balance to a story that is quite seriously entrenched in 19th century British inheritance laws and the plight of women who were ruled by them. Heady stuff for any playwright to embrace and adapt. Even more so for the lucky audience if they get it right.

The two heroines of this cautionary tale are Elinor (Kjerstine Anderson) and Marianne (Jessica Martin) Dashwood – one with too much sense, and the other with not enough. Each of the sisters reacts differently to their life tragedies and budding romances. Jessica Martin’s Marianne was all pure unbridled emotion: extreme, exuberant, exasperating! Never loving by halves, she gushed about dead leaves, poetry and her beaux Willoughby with a passion leaping into Bronteism.  Marianne also dips into the depths of despair after being thrown-over by her suitor, wearing her down and into a serious illness. We had wished this had been given more attention and that Marianne had not rebounded back to herself with such cheerful alacrity.

Kjerstine Anderson as Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility at the Book-It Rep (2011)Kjerstine Anderson as the solid, staid and correct sister Elinor was surprisingly regal, imposing and privately snarky – a different interpretation than I had experienced in my reading of the novel, or in any of the movie adaptations. Questioning my previous conclusions, was Austen’s Elinor as introspective, subtle and guarded as I had thought? Anderson did a commendable job as Austen’s anchor of reason and rationality, albeit too emotionally at critical moments. I am uncertain if this change in characteristics was artistic license or by direction, but it altered the divergence in the sisters personalities and lessened some of Austen’s critical plot points.

Aaron Blakely as John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility at the Book-It  Rep (2011) x 200The three heroes (or anti-heroes): Edward Ferrars (Jason Marr), Col Brandon (David Quicksall) and John Willoughby (Aaron Blakely) were sensitively cast as the affable nerd, the gallant geezer and the charming cad to extreme satisfaction. Austen gave us an interesting assortment of suitors for our heroines. Often we are uncertain who the hero is because of major character flaws that act like red-herrings. In this interpretation (happily) Edward did not stutter, but he was so innocuous we wonder what Elinor saw in him. Really wonder! Marr was more than a bit of a milquetoast, and so was Quicksall as Col. Brandon who barely uttered a line for several scenes (to disconcerting effect) until he finally finds his voice making it all the more moving and admirable. Well done. When Blakely’s Willoughby gallantly arrives  to rescue the injured Marianne in a billowing greatcoat, our expectation of a Byronic hero was totally fulfilled. *swoon* The fact that he looked like a young Jonny Lee Miller did not hurt either. No wonder Marianne lost all sense. Who wouldn’t?  He was equally convincing in relaying his conflicted loyalties of money vs. love.

Jessica Martin and David Quicksall in Sense and Sensibility at the Book-It Rep (2011) The minor characters in Austen’s tale are so endearingly flawed and humorous, supplying the comedy to offset the tragedy. Of note were the scheming and duplicitous Miss Lucy Steele (Angela DiMarco); selfish and manipulative Mrs. Dashwood (Emily Grogan) and her equally unappealing husband Mr. John Dashwood (Shawn Law); gossipy matchmaker Mrs. Jennings (Karen Nelson); and the jovial and obliging Sir John Middleton (Bill Johns). They brought levity to Jen Taylor’s energetic dramatization which at times had its charms and foibles. The narrative faithfully followed Austen’s own right down to some exact quotes. Huzzah! Gone though were Austen’s cynical underpinnings, subtle puns and measured pacing – all replaced by an emphasis on humor and breakneck speed. Scenes quickly altered with the draw of a curtain across the stage taking us from London to the country within seconds. Actors changed costumes by adding layers as they delivered lines on stage. Spoken dialogue shifted to narrative recited directly from the novel in one breath. It was exhausting and exhilarating. Austen encapsulated and accelerated for the modern stage.

We enjoyed every line and every moment, but we were happy to wind down afterwards with a cup of tea and the novel.

Jessica Martin and Kjerstine Anderson in Sense and Sensibility at the Book-It Rep (2011)

Book-It’s Sense and Sensibility runs at the Center House Theater thru June 26th

Photos © Alan Alabastro 2011

© 2007 – 2011 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Preview of Sense and Sensibility Stage Play at Book-It Rep in Seattle

Sense and Sensibility at the Book-It Repertory Theatre (2011)

We are very fortunate to have one of the nation’s premiere small theater companies right in our own backyard. For the last 20 years the Book-It Repertory Theater of Seattle has been exclusively adapting written work for the stage. Among the sixty plus world premier adaptations they have presented are stage productions of three Jane Austen novels: Pride and Prejudice (2004), Persuasion (2008) and Emma (2010). Now in honor of the bicentenary of the publication of Jane Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility will premiere on Friday June 3, 2011 at the Center House Theatre.

In Austen’s first published novel (1811), the Dashwood sisters find that love is an unpredictable struggle against the most important social values: family, honor, and wealth.  As teens, Elinor and Marianne’s family fortunes take a turn when they lose their father, and their welcome in his home, now owned by their half-brother and his overbearing wife. With a move and a few chance meetings, Elinor falls for the intelligent and reserved Edward Ferrars, while Marianne dotes upon the handsome John Willoughby. Through Elinor’s sense and Marianne’s sensibility, this sprightly tale wends along the twisting path of love among the English gentry.

Directed by Makaela Pollock and playscript by Jen Taylor, of all of Jane Austen’s novels, Sense and Sensibility might prove to be the most adapatable. We are all anticipation of its high voltage emotional elements and endearingly flawed characters being brought to the stage. Just the thought of drama-queen Marianne Dashwood emoting in body and spirit sends shivers and chills, and the humor of the Middletons and the Misses Steeles should keep us laughing.

Marianne Dashwood (Jessica Martin) and Elinor Dashwood (Kjerstine Anderson) in Sense and Sensibility at Book-it Rep Seattle (2011)

Marianne (Jessica Martin) & Elinor (Kjerstine Anderson) Dashwood
in Book-It’s Sense and Sensibility

After attending their production of Persuasion in 2008, I am looking forward to experiencing Book-It’s unique style where the actors recite much of the text as it was originally written – but with the added benefit of costuming, lighting and the excitement of a live production. I will be attending on Sunday, June 12 with a group of Janeites so be sure to check back for my review.

  • Sense and Sensibility at the Book-It Repertory Theatre, Seattle
  • May 25 – June 26, 2011
  • Pay-what-you-will previews: May 25, 26, 31
  • Subscriber Preview: June 2
  • Opening Night: Friday, June 3

2007 – 2011 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Book-It Repertory Theatre: Persuasion Review

Image of Chiara Motley as Anne Elliot, Persuasion, Book-It Theatre, (2008)

A PERSUASIVE ADAPTATION OF AUSTEN’S CLASSIC

How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been! How eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence! She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning. The Narrator on Anne Elliot, Persuasion, Chapter 4

 

Image of Chiara Motley as Anne Elliot, Persuasion, Book-It Theatre, (2008)Eloquent is the perfect word to describe my experience at the Book-It Repertory Theatre production of the new adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion, on Sunday last. The smell of the grease paint – and all that – got my heart racing again, bringing back fond memories of my many years associated with marketing of a grand opera company. Sigh. There is just no substitute for the excitement and thrill of a live production. None! So people, forget the comforts of your sofa and support your local arts organization. You won’t regret it!

Ok, off my high horse and back to the play, which the local critic of the Seattle PI thought “sneakily captivating“, and I heartily concur. Having read the novel and seen the movie adaptations, that complement was not quite a surprise to me; but I was relieved that the adaptors, Jen Taylor and Colin Bryne, had included enough of Jane Austen’s intensions so that all levels of Austen fans or non-fans could pick it up.

Image of Chiara Motley as Anne Elliot, Persuasion, Book-It Theatre, (2008)The first five minutes of any production are always a struggle for me. I am always suspect, needing to be drawn into the enchantment of the story and characters before I can be taken away into that special make-believe world of live theater. My hesitant resistance to the dialogue lingered a bit longer. Where was Jane Austen’s prose? The characters and plot were the same, but the language? I concede sincere attachment to the novel, and may be too close to be objective, – but this did disappoint.

The audience, including other members of my group from the Jane Austen web site, The Republic of Pemberely, were attentive and laughed in the right places. In fact, I had not remembered Persuasion being quite so funny, but there it was. A tragic love story that made them laugh-out-loud? Hmm? My sensibilites were perplexed. My indignation was rising.

Image of Persuasion, Book-It Repertory Theatre, (2008)I know that I am a severe critic having been warped by years of quivering over opera reviews, but I willed myself into enjoyment, and purposely set aside my magnifying glass and overlooked some the costume and stage prop blunders to focus on the acting, which was quite impressive. This is a first rate repertory theatre of seasoned and skilled professionals, aptly cast and decisively directed by Myra Platt. Chiara Motley who portrayed Anne Elliot was a lovely willowy thing; dutiful, sensitive, and patient. All the qualities that we expect in Jane Austen’s most stoic heroine.

By the time of our hero Captain Wentworth’s (John Bogar) entrance into the Musgrove household, I had forgotten my qualms about dialogue and was enthralled in the story. He Image of John Bogar as Captain Wentworth, Persuasion, Book-It Rep, (2008)was a dashing Wentworth, with a captivating stage presence. Hurrah! Actually, he had me after his first line. The voice was velvety and authoritative, and that just wrapped it up nicely for me. Here was a Wentworth worthy of our heroine pining away eight years for.

We see some surprising artistic license taken by the adaptors in respect to Anne’s pompous father Sir Walter Elliot, (Kevin McKeon), and her social climbing sister Elizabeth Elliot (Kate Czajkowski). In the novel and movie adaptations, our patience is tested by that supercilious and cynical pair of spendthrifts to the point of abhorrence, but here, they have evolved into lighter more comedic caricatures. Their dialogue plays off each other like tennis volleys, and one is reminded of the socialite banter from a Noel Coward satirical play of the 1920’s. The humor was a relief, but I fear that it lessens Anne Elliot’s pitiable situation. One finds it much easer to laugh off their condescension and snobbery, then to deal with the stark reality of her actual life with them portrayed in the novel and movies.

Image of Chiara Motley & Carol Roscoe in Persuasion, Book-It Rep, (2008)Within the talented ensemble cast, two performances were standouts in my mind, and both had plum roles to reincarnate; the dotty Mary Musgrove, (Carol Roscoe) played with great energy and comedic timing, and the tragic Captain Benwick, (Jamie Rush), sensitively played by a promising young actor whose brief dialogue I remember more for its prominent pauses, than content. This was a welcome relief after a few lost moments from previously rushed scenes.

Kudos to the creative staff and cast of a clever and effective adaptation of one of Jane Austen’s most tender novels. You pierced my soul! Of note, was the attendance of members of the local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America who had generously under-written the cost of the costumes for the production. Bravo JASNA!

Image of Ricky Coats as William Elliot, Persuasion, Book-It, Rep, (2008)The matinee performance was a sell-out, which is the best remedy for a struggling repertory company, who deserve a far better venue to perform in than the constraints of the Center House Theater at Seattle Center. Ah…the financial challenges of a nonprofit arts organization. That I don’t miss!

Persuasion runs through March 2nd and tickets are still available at (206) 216-0833, boxoffice@book-it.org, or on-line. Catch excerpts of the production and interviews of the cast here.

Update! New review from the Seattle Times theater critic who cleverly includes her critique in a letter to Jane Austen!