Michael L. Quintos
Associate Los Angeles Theatre Critic
To kick off its 55th Season, Orange County's Tony Award-winning regional theater South Coast Repertory is presenting a charming new stage adaptation of the Jane Austen literary classic “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY,” which continues performances in Costa Mesa through September 29.
Winningly likable with plenty of sharp wits and appealing characters, this admirable stage iteration—adapted by UK playwright Jessica Swale and directed here by Casey Stangl—reacquaints audiences with the seemingly erratic and emotionally taxing task of landing a suitable mate in late 18th Century/early 19th Century England.
In tone, pacing, and casting, SCR's fresh if still lengthy adaptation of the 1811 novel is lovingly fluffy and buoyant, yet achingly relatable and grounded—just the sort of expectation one gets from a reverent adaptation of a work from one of literature's most revered female voices.
I believe it's safe to argue that Austen was a much-needed forward-thinker who was quite ahead of her time. By merely allowing readers a glimpse inside the vulnerable yet strong-willed minds of women—trying to navigate happiness in the midst of a more male-dominant world—she is able to show that her female heroines are definitely as equally sensitive as they are steadfast in their convictions.
It is this duality that makes Austen's characters in “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” so intriguing to observe.
The era in which the story unfolds—likely around 1800—is itself caught in a sort of dichotomy that mirrors our characters' own personal journey(s). At the time of the story, England is slowly shifting from the Regency era ruled by observed elegance and strict etiquette and opulence to the early Victorian era where a rising population is looking to slowly break away from traditionally archaic thinking for more modern, humane sensibilities.
And, yes, even the production itself looks and feels a little rebellious in its own way. Taking a hard-to-miss cue from the groundbreaking “HAMILTON,” this adaptation also uses color-blind, purposely multi-cultural casting to populate its rosters, presenting a diverse ensemble that mirrors today's England rather than the England of the 1800's depicted in the work.
While purists may balk at this production's seemingly "stunt"-like decision, open-minded audiences attending SCR's “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” will be rewarded with terrific performances from an exceptionally talented cast that presents a much more hopeful visual—making the reality of our current hate-fueled days seem like unforgivable fiction. Besides, the fact that the three sisters are each a different ethnicity becomes an instantly innocuous, almost nonchalant mechanism that you barely notice. What you do see is that each actor is deeply committed to the role (or in some cases roles) they've been tasked to portray.
Like its source material, SCR's “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” focuses on the saga of the Dashwood women, particularly sisters Elinor (the exquisite Hilary Ward) and Marianne (Rebecca Mozo) and their often obstacle-prone pursuit of romance and self-fulfillment.
When the play begins, the sisters, along with their mother Mrs. Dashwood (Nike Doukas) and younger sister Margaret (comic gem Desirée Men Jung), are dealing with the death of the girls' beloved father, Mr. Dashwood.
The event is traumatic enough, but now they must also have to deal with the aftermath of the death, specifically regarding the archaic English law of Entailment, which means all monetary and land inheritance—including the very posh mansion in Norland that they have called home for many years—must only be bestowed to a succession of single male heirs.
The next heir in line happens to be girls' much older half-brother John (Matt Orduña), who happens to have a very greedy wife named Fanny (Abigail Marks). As expected, John and Fanny move into what is now their property in Norland, and eventually, Fanny convinces her husband that the Dashwood ladies should best relocate elsewhere, the sooner, the better.
It doesn't help matters when Elinor receives the attention of Fanny's visiting brother Edward (the winningly adorkable Josh Odess-Rubin), a meet-cute turned on-going palpable flirtation that doesn't sit well with Fanny.
Not willing to put up with being unwelcome "guests" in the place they've called home for years, Mrs. Dashwood surrenders and agrees to move out. But because their finances are slashed to the bare minimum, she moves her family (and just a single manservant) into a humble country cottage in Devonshire.
Luckily, their more modest digs have them living near a much more amiable bunch: Mrs. Dashwood's cousin Sir John Middleton (Orduña, in a second role) and gossipy match-maker Mrs. Jennings (the scene-stealing Marks, in her second very showy role) who welcome the ladies with open arms. They also meet Colonel Brandon (Dileep Rao), a friend of the family who seems to have taken a liking to Marianne (Marianne, however, doesn't return the feelings).
But, soon things are about to take an unexpected turn.
While out on a walk with her baby sister Meg, an injured Marianne is rescued by the extraordinarily handsome passerby John Willoughby (Preston Butler III). Of course, it's love at first sight. But is it too good to be true? Do hot men just drop out of the sky with similar interests in the middle of the barren countryside?
Well, in the England of Austen's time, romance isn't so cut and dry. Because so much of one's status (both societal and financial) is tied to whomever one weds, the stakes for romance in 1800's British life, especially for women, is much more complicated than just falling for someone. Sadly, at times, romance doesn't even enter the picture.
Emotional complexity is the order of the day, and so in “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY,” the complications for love seem more heightened and have more profound consequences. Elinor, the eldest and seemingly more worldly, is methodical and practical about love and marriage, while Marianne, the middle kid with uncaged feelings, wears her heart on her sleeve, and is vehemently unapologetic about it. Both are, as fate dictates, forced to re-evaluate their approaches. Knowing this, the play becomes a genuinely absorbing story to take in.
Right from the get-go, the production deserves our applause for both its engaging ensemble as well as its well-choreographed staging. It is indeed a wonder to watch all these characters—often played by actors doing multiple roles—cross in and out with gleeful, accurate precision.
Maggie Morgan's sumptuous costumes are precisely why people love and adore period pieces, and this play's parade of couture is spectacular and era-accurate.
But, alas, although the SCR production has lots to love, not all is perfect with the production.
Even though Swale's remarkable assignment of extensively condensing Austen's novel into a manageable, single sit-down experience (with an intermission, of course), the play still clocks in at nearly three densely-packed hours, making it slightly too much at certain points and could've used even more edits to keep us engaged consistently. (Ang Lee's exquisite 1995 film adaptation, penned by Emma Thompson, does a better job at condensing Austen's three-volume novel; while the beautifully-paced three-episode 2008 BBC mini-series adapted by Andrew Davies, for me feels like the definitive iteration).
There's also the matter of François-Pierre Couture's simplistic and flat set design that relies heavily on just serving as the canvas for David Murakami's projection design and Anne E. McMill's lighting design. There is no disputing that the show is undoubtedly able to convey the various locales and locations well—both interior and exterior—happening in the play. Unfortunately, though the projections are lovely (sometimes beautifully hypnotic) enough, they can come off a bit generic and detached, as if they were an afterthought to the production. It's not a new device at SCR (I was not a huge fan of its usage in another SCR Austen adaptation “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” in 2011), but this feels by far the most detached it has ever felt in relation to its contextual material.
And while it behooves to repeat that the superb cast indeed sells the show, some periphery characters started to feel similar to one another, mainly because of the double (and triple)-casting. Though it happened for me rarely (and because I am pre-exposed to these characters and this story), I still had minor difficulties in deciphering where one minor character ends, and another minor character from the same actor begins. It is by no means a full-on distraction, but I feel that this will start to fix itself as the production soldiers on through many more performances.
But despite these minor challenges, overall, SCR's top-drawer production of this Austen classic is a bonafide crowd-pleaser, particularly for those perpetually enamored by the adventures of the lovestruck Dashwood sisters. The color-blind casting will make you sit up and applaud, and Austen's wit (via Swale's keystrokes) will keep you smiling and chuckling and wishing we could all have a happy romantic ending, too.
* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *
Photos by Jordan Kubat for South Coast Repertory.
“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” continues at South Coast Repertory through September 29, 2018. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.