As I entered the Arthur Miller Theater for the Department of Theatre & Drama’s production of “Sense and Sensibility,” I’ll admit that I was skeptical. Could a Jane Austen novel really be adapted for the stage? Could this reserved book from 1811 really be adapted into a modern theatrical work?
By the end of the second scene, however, the production had alleviated my fears. As the audience was seated, the cast walked onto the stage in various stages of partial dress. As they donned their formal dresses and tied their ties, the audience was treated to casual, conversational 19th-century British English. After this setting was established, it was just as quickly discarded — modern pop music blared from the speakers, and the cast danced around the stage.
This juxtaposition was jarring at first, and I was laughing at the production (as opposed to with the production) at the beginning of this dance number. But once I suspended my disbelief and bought into this premise, the play was remarkably consistent in not venturing beyond it. Though it took a little while, I was soon fully entrenched in this historical British society full of contemporary humorous interjections.
Director Priscilla Lindsay’s successful juxtaposition between plot and humor was mirrored by the inherent juxtaposition between (what I assume to be) historically accurate costumes and jarringly modern sets; men in morning dress and women in fancy gowns sitting in front of empty window frames and wooden chairs on wheels. In perhaps my favorite moment of the whole show, a table covered in a white sheet, turned on its shorter side, became an upright bed in which characters slept.
Much of the humor in the show came from The Gossips, a group of actors that comment on the action on stage without taking part in it. This humor was physical at times and more sophisticated at others. I never thought I’d see humans acting as horses and dogs in the middle of a Jane Austen story, but somehow it succeeded. They managed to interject contemporary humor and a modern perspective throughout.
The central plot, on the other hand, was a little harder to stomach. While this adaptation did much to address some basic problems resulting in the transition from novel to stage, some shortcomings were still present, including the circuitous, flowery nature of speech and plot at the time, the relative passivity of the female characters and the shallowness of their relationships.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I was not particularly familiar with this novel before I saw the play. I’d imagine that the experience was quite different for those who knew what to expect. But as a relatively unsuspecting audience member, I found it hard, at times, to connect with the characters and their desires.
Though the humor was incredibly entertaining, as were the beginning and closing portions of each act, I found myself wishing for a little more concision in some of the middle numbers. This is no fault of the cast — they did much to enliven this sections and give emotional gravitas to situations in which little textual emotion was to be found — but I think it was a clear, if relatively minor, flaw in the adaptation.
That being said, I couldn’t have been more impressed with the cast. Their British accents were more than convincing, as were their 19th century mannerisms. And though I wouldn’t think I’d be able to relate much to these seemingly antiquated figures, I found myself moved by their struggles and touched by their resolutions. Even as I was rooting for the female characters to have more agency in rejecting marriage as their only source of happiness, I was admittedly touched when they managed to find love in these relationships.
All in all, it was a funny, thought-provoking take on a historically dated story, an unexpectedly entertaining modernization of a seminal piece of British literature. And it was a testament to the talent of those in the Department of Theatre & Drama that they were able to take this adaptation and make it entertaining.