The production of Sense and Sensibility, at Book-It Repertory Theatre, can only be described as bi-polar. Like manic depression, the first act was a very low point but the second act soared to near brilliance.
Like all Jane Austen novels the plot revolves around the permutations of four courtships and engagements in Regency England. Two sisters, Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, played by Kjerstine Anderson and Jessica Martin, are the dispossessed genteel females, with diminished marriage prospects, who go through many trials and tribulations before settling into suitable marriages, based on love and financial stability. Like all the novels, it is also a morality tale; the honorable men, such as Colonel Brandon, played by David Quicksall and Edward Ferrars, played by Jason Mason, are rewarded and the dishonorable men such as Willoughby, played by Aaron Blakeley, are punished. It is also a literary quarrel with Elinor, representing classical literature and Marianne representing romantic literature.
The first act suffered because the actors were not able to make the narrative text come alive. Most of the actors, especially Jessica Martin as Marianne and Emily Grogan as Fanny Dashwood, lacked breath support and shouted their lines, with their voices breaking quite often. Unfortunately the actors concentrated on pronouncing the words with an English accent, but did not work on vocal placement so that the resonance and intonation pattern were very American, as a result the subtle irony and wit was lost. All the actors needed to stop smiling and funnel their lips so that the resonance and intonation would be English rather than American. We were not amused.
It was worth coming back after the intermission because the second act, which had more dialogue, action and less narrative, was close to brilliant, the directing was clearer, and creative. The actors stopped reciting their lines, and all of the scenes were to die for. Jessica Martin, playing Marianne Dashwood, was able to deliver some incredibly well-acted touching scenes, with vocal panache. In the second act, the wit, humor, deeply disguised hostility and irony were expressed with exquisite comic timing. The ending, although it was done exceptionally well, focused on the engagements of the Dashwood sisters with Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon; however it left out Willoughby’s plight. The effect was that the morality tale embedded in the plot was not tied up.
Out of all the TV and film adaptations, David Quicksall’s Colonel Brandon was without a doubt the best Brandon ever. In most adaptations, Brandon is played as a plodding dullard and it always seems a punishment for Marianne’s past foolishness to end up marrying him. Not this Brandon, he is virile, sexually attractive, sensitive, and a commanding presence. Instead of making it a foregone conclusion that Marianne will ignore him, the audience immediately notices that something is not right with Marianne, because she ignores him. The scene where Brandon communicates his relationship with Willoughby to Elinor, is one of the best scenes in the show.
Jason Marr was double cast as Edward Ferras, Elinor’s love interest, and also as his foppish younger brother Robert. His short scene as Robert was hilarious because he used drastically different physicality and a different character. Emily Grogan was double cast as Mrs. Palmer and as Fanny Dashwood, the sister-in-law of Marianne and Elinor. Ms. Grogan’s portrayal of Fanny Dashwood, described as behaving with “quiet civility” by Austen, was physically and vocally was anything but. As an over-the-top Mrs. Palmer, the costume, hair, voice and physicality were not differentiated from her portrayal of Fanny Dashwood.
The period costumes were visually pleasing with many little details making huge statements, such as Mrs. Jennings old-fashioned outfit and Lucy Steele’s sartorial vulgarity. Using on-stage costume changes from regular clothes into mourning, spoke volumes about the transitions the three women were going through. The Center House Theatre was turned into a theatre-in-the-round with a simple elegant set which generally worked well, with curtains being used to great effect. The few special effects and the period music enhanced the play and made it possible to stage the outdoor scenes with dramatic effect.
Sense & Sensibility, Center House Theatre in Seattle Center 305 Harrison through June 26th,www. book-it.org. 216-0833 Wed-Sat at 7:30, and 2pm on Sundays.