Theater Review: Northern Stage’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ offers gaudy take on the Austen classic

By CAOIMHE MARKEY

For the Valley News

Published: 07-05-2023 7:09 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Before I attended Friday’s performance of “Sense and Sensibility,” the closing show of Northern Stage’s 25th anniversary season, I refreshed my memory of the story by watching Ang Lee’s faithful 1995 film adaptation, starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman. I had planned to go last Tuesday, but the production, held in Northern Stage’s outdoor Courtyard Theater, was rained out.

A character-driven story at its core, Jane Austen’s 1811 novel follows the Dashwood family, a mother and her three daughters, after the loss of their patriarch. Their inheritance is passed over them, by virtue of their sex, to the remaining male heir, their uncle, John Dashwood, and his snobbish wife, Fanny. This leaves the sisters penniless and in need of a home, and so they embark upon a search for a place to land and a way to restore their wealth and reputation; namely, by marrying into a rich family. On their way, the sisters fall in and out of love and come up against moral dilemmas as they discover that the world of high society dating is not so easy to navigate.

While Northern Stage’s production of playwright Kate Hamill’s adaptation respects the bones of the original, I was surprised to find that it sensationalized a tale that is characterized by its subtle humor, placid landscapes and the tender bond of sisterhood. The campification of “Sense and Sensibility” is bolstered by a setting that fuses Victorian-era architecture with Barbie’s Dream House. It is an adaptation, in short, that covers Jane Austen in glitter from head to toe, a creative decision that is as risky as it sounds.

The self-effacing dramatic irony of the original novel has been magnified into farcical, even cringe-worthy comedy in Hamill’s hands. True to its era, Austen’s novel hides its sexuality, but this production lays it all out on the table. The play is, as Director Aileen McGroddy put it in an interview with Broadway World, an exposure of “the nasty, rowdy, and delicious currents that drive the formal society of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ to understand how it might be possible to live freely in a corseted world.”

The formal society that McGroddy touches on is embodied in the play by “The Gossips,” a flock of cast members introduced right at the start clad in skin-tight suits, wig caps and with high-pitched British accents. They served as scandalized narrators who inform the audience of the minutiae of the story’s twists and represented the unkind reactions of high society to the Dashwoods’ bad fortune. Their loud, messy interjections made for a garish, in-your-face introduction to the play. Over the course of the 2 ½-hour performance, this satirical beginning was softened as the audience became more attached to the Dashwood family and acquainted with the actors.

One thing that can be said with absolute confidence about Northern Stage’s creation is that no one had more fun than the cast. The actors, many of whom play multiple parts, maintained a skipping joviality as they danced through environments, costumes and characters. Izzie Steele was uproarious as Mrs. Jennings, who along with her husband, Sir John Middleton, allowed the Dashwoods to stay in a cottage on their property. Steele’s pointed pompousness in her second role as Fanny Dashwood drew laughs from the audience and illustrated her versatility as an actor. Her cheeky physicality and exaggerated mannerisms were astoundingly timed and perfectly suited for the vaudevillian nature of the production. Andrew Gombas stole the stage as a hilariously peacockish version of sly John Willoughby, a dashing suitor who steals the heart of Marianne Dashwood. Marianne herself is played by Jihan Haddad, who aptly captured the fierce soft-heartedness of her character and matched well with the kind-faced Michelle Duffy as Mrs. Dashwood, matriarch of the family.

Northern Stage’s Courtyard Theater is an impressive space. Attendees were treated to a lobby bar and took their seats in the delicately lit grotto to enjoy the show under the open Vermont sky. Developed in response to pandemic restrictions in 2021 and designed by Michael Ganio, the courtyard seats up to 250 audience members. Scenic designer Carolyn Mraz has transformed the space into a set that appreciates pink to the nth degree by mixing dainty regal furniture and Grecian pillars with the glitz, glamor and whimsicality of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

Openness was a throughline of the production, as backstage was left open to the audience where we could observe cast members changing costumes and preparing to re-enter the set. Making use of every available facility, the cast appeared far behind the audience and came charging onstage with a pink-hoofed horse in tow, and argued in a window upstairs from the set and above the audience. Lighting designer Jennifer Fok fixed the set with light bars and changing hues of pinks and purples that accentuate each scene, particularly the musical number performed by Narea Kang as Elinor Dashwood. Costume designer Camilla Dely carried out a modernization of Victorian glamor with denim cowboy suits, ample use of florals and a pink-centered command of color.

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For all its color and energy, this production situates the play neither in Austen’s Regency Era nor the present day, but in its own little playhouse universe. It doesn’t always feel cohesive, given the modern-day costumes, songs and dance numbers juxtaposed with the decision to preserve the English accents and Regency set, but rather like a mismatched adaptation that is not quite sure where or what it wants to be and is desperate to hold your attention. It is nearly overstuffed with changing landscapes, costumes, sets and rapid-fire dialogue.

One thing is certain however: it has created its own fun-loving if gaudy place in which to celebrate the final show of Northern Stage’s 25th season.

“Sense and Sensibility” runs through Sunday. Tickets and further information are available at northernstage.org.

Caoimhe Markey is a freelance writer. She lives in Woodstock.