Review: Sense and Sensibility

By Larry Laneer
August 14, 2018

Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park continues its summer season at their Paseo venue with a bewildering production of Sense and Sensibility that raises far more questions than it answers. The main question is “What are they trying to do?”

The playwright Kate Hamill based her script on Jane Austen’s novel about the triumphs, small as they may be, and tragedies of the Dashwood family in early-19th-century England. In the playscript, Hamill advises “I encourage you to be as creative as you wish; it’s meant to be a bit of a funhouse!” The director, Laura Standley, may have taken Hamill a tad too literally.

Standley has staged the play with both economy and a heavy hand. The first act comprises 20 mostly short scenes, and the second act has 25 scenes. The playing area is the middle of the rectangular Paseo space with the audience seated on risers at both ends (sight lines are not bad). Using two tables on rollers, several chairs, and many props, the cast creates indoor and outdoor settings throughout London and rural England. Standley keeps the action moving with efficiency.

Then, she gets heavy handed. Here are a few of many possible examples: For the first five minutes, the cast comes out and mingles with the audience. Point being? I don’t know. Next, they exit but soon return to the stage and start the play. Much of the movement is choreographed to the extreme. To begin each act, the cast assembles in two lines on opposite sides of the stage and walks across it in formation while contemporary electronic music plays and, then, back again. Other contrived movements occur both standing and seated throughout the play. What does this mean? It’s beyond me. A dinner scene includes mechanical gestures sort of like what diners may make but done by the cast in unison. In other scenes, characters’ feelings and  emotional experiences are acted out. A character is literally swept off her feet (by other cast members) in elation one time and in despair another. These movements must have taken lots of rehearsal time, and the cast executes them smoothly. Maybe these additions to the script indicate Standley thinks Austen’s story and Hamill’s adaptation are not strong enough on their own to hold the audience’s interest. You can decide for yourself whether these extraneous movements justify the production’s three-hour running time.

In several scenes that involve characters walking or taking carriage rides, Standley has the main actors mimic movement while other actors pass beside them holding tree branches aloft. It’s like the illusion in old films where stationary actors mimic riding a horse while a moving backdrop rolls by behind them. In one scene, two actors play dogs. One yelps, while the other raises his leg on an audience member. The production has sight gags galore. The many music cues range from the Italian baroque to 21st-century electronica. Elisa Bierschenk’s period costumes are in modern hues.

Standley has drawn fine performances from the top-notch cast, some of whom will be familiar to theatergoers, while others are new. Madeline Dannenberg as Elinor Dashwood gives a heartfelt performance. You can see the weight of the world on her shoulders as scandal bears down on the family. A close second is Ashley Frisbee as Marianne Dashwood (the “sensibility” to Elinor’s “sense”). She has complete command of the role as the character whipsaws between highs and lows of love. The delightful Bianca Bulgarelli plays the young Margaret Dashwood.

Hamill includes all the main characters from Austen’s novel and several secondary ones, so the cast doubles some roles. At one point, Becca Mitchell, playing two characters, has a slap fight with herself. She drew audience applause at the reviewed performance. Joseph Burleigh, Wil Rogers, David Fletcher-Hall, Tyler Woods, and Lindsey Rollins play main and secondary characters. The cast keeps up an admirable amount of energy during this long, demanding production.

Sense and Sensibility isn’t exactly a comedy, although this production has quite a bit of humor, or, rather, attempts at humor. In fact, the story gets harrowing in the second act. Austen fans can decide for themselves about Hamill’s adaptation and the OSP production. The rest of us should be prepared for a long sit.

Sense and Sensibility by Kate Hamill (based on the Jane Austen novel)
Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through August 25
2:00 p.m. Sunday, August 19
Shakespeare on Paseo
2920 Paseo