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Taibi Magar’s Captivating Staging Makes Kate Hamill’s Refreshing, Funny New Version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility a Must-See Show

Clockwise from left, PlayMakers Rep's cast for Sense and Sensibility includes April Mae Davis as Anne Steele, Sarah Keyes as Lucy Steele, and Emily Bosco as Marianne Dashwood (photo by HuthPhoto)

Clockwise from left, PlayMakers Rep’s cast for Sense and Sensibility includes April Mae Davis as Anne Steele, Sarah Keyes as Lucy Steele, and Emily Bosco as Marianne Dashwood (photo by HuthPhoto)

PlayMakers Repertory Company continues its “Season on the Edge” on Oct. 18-Nov. 5 with the regional premiere of American playwright Kate Hamill’s 2014 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, the 1811 English novel by Jane Austen. Dramatist Kate Hamill amplifies the desires of novelist Jane Austen’s iconic characters through razor-sharp dialogue, trimming away some of the novel’s more flowery parlance.

Like Hamill, first-time PlayMakers Rep guest director Taibi Magar strives for emotional accuracy, at the expense of sounding and looking like a costume drama. This PR C production has avoided becoming, what I call “Austen-tatious”: Hours of sitting in the lounge with our ankles crossed, sipping tea, and whispering daintily about Mr. Whogivesadamn and how much money he has and whether his wife is dead yet and if he has a handsome brother and, oh my, look at the time … we must iron the doilies before father comes home.

Rather, characters’ emotions pour out quite naturally — politeness be damned. The characters are frank with one another. In looking to bring life to a well-worn piece of literature, you simply must show us something that w e have not seen. Both Hamill’s script and Magar’s direction accomplish that.

The politics of gender are integral to this tale, as with any Austen work. But playwright Kate Hamill lets that fact emerge through plot and dialogue, never drawing a big red circle around it. The female leads are powerful, intelligent, and driven. They do not need to tell us that they are. Hamill doesn’t have a “Daughter-Stands-Up-to-the-Patriarch” scene, because the play’s women are in charge of their story from the get-go.

While most of the Dashwood sisters’ conversations do revolve around men and marriage, this adaptation comes as close to passing the Bechdel test as any version that you’re likely to see.

Director Taibi Magar’s lightning-fast pacing, seamless — almost invisible — transitions, and use of the entire stage keep this ship afloat. Her actors are not trapped in a drawing room or kitchen, so neither are we. They storm across the stage, cry in the rain, take manic carriage rides, and perform burlesque. These stylistic adjustments are more than enough to bring this story back to life. The jarring use of songs by Beyoncé and Robin Thicke occasionally turns things to parody, and keeps a great show from being a glorious one.

With Jane Austen’s youthful, vivacious characters and Taibi Magar’s lively staging, a young cast proves mandatory. Magar has chosen a promising octet of first- and second-year students from UNC’s Professional Actor Training Program, with a trio of veteran actors tackling supporting roles.

PlayMakers Repertory Company presentation of Kate Hamill's adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, directed by Taibi Magar, runs Oct. 18-Nov. 5 (photo by HuthPhoto)

PlayMakers Repertory Company presentation of Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, directed by Taibi Magar, runs Oct. 18-Nov. 5 (photo by HuthPhoto)

The cast come together to form a Greek chorus of Gossips. Clad in blacks and grays, they present the play’s prologue, and materialize here and there to provide occasional rapid-fire exposition.

The novel and the play’s title indicates the two worlds of this romance, with “Sense” meaning good judgment and prudence and “Sensibility” meaning emotionality. The world of Sense is led by serious older sister Elinor Dashwood, played with admirable control by Shanelle Nicole Leonard. PlayMakers mainstay Jeffrey Blair Cornell plays the practical, restrained Colonel Brandon. Costume designer Olivera Gajic dresses them both in cool blues, with little embellishment.

The world of Sensibility is led by overly sensitive middle sister Marianne, played by an earnest Emily Bosco. Sharing Marianne’s lust for life is the scandalous John Willoughby, played by a statuesque Geoffrey Culbertson. In contrast with the icier Elinor and Brandon, Gajic dresses this pair in warmer shades of yellow and merlot.

The wide-eyed, well-meaning Edward Ferrars, played by an endearing Rishan Dhamija, is caught between these disparate universes of logic versus emotion. Gajic dresses Edward in blues like Elinor and Brandon, suggesting that he lies more on the side of Sense than of Sensibility. Dhamija also plays Edward’s egotistical bratty brother Robert, though this interpretation is far too campy.

PlayMakers veteran Ray Dooley is a mischievous and perky Ms. Jennings. He wears one of the production’s most enjoyable costumes, resembling a gossiping turkey.

But I am forced yet again to question a director’s choice to cast a man in a woman’s role. While both men and women have played Ms. Jennings in this particular adaptation, the script does not call for a man to do it, so why? A man in a dress earns a few chuckles, but loses flavor fast. When a juicy role for a middle-aged woman manages to sneak through the cracks, is it too much to ask that a middle-aged woman be permitted to play it?

PlayMakers regular Dede Corvinus plays both the matronly Mrs. Dashwood and the hilariously cantankerous Mrs. Ferrars; and Alex Givens proves to be a prominent player, even in the small role of John Dashwood. He is also a valuable leader in the Gossip sequences.

Clockwise from left are Alex Givens as Sir John Dashwood, Geoffry Culbertson as a Gossip, Rishan Dhamija as Robert Ferrars, and Dede Corvinus as Mrs. Ferrars (photo by HuthPhoto)

Clockwise from left are Alex Givens as Sir John Dashwood, Geoffry Culbertson as a Gossip, Rishan Dhamija as Robert Ferrars, and Dede Corvinus as Mrs. Ferrars (photo by HuthPhoto)

Sarah Elizabeth Keyes is deliciously clownish as the nasty Fanny Dashwood and the befuddled Lady Middleton. She flitters about as Lucy Steele, with her silly sister Anne — played by April Mae Davis — at her side. Their dowdy brown and mustard dresses betray their impoverishment. Dan Toot is most impressive — precisely executing an ever-changing quartet of voices, bodies, and costumes as Sir John Middleton, Thomas the Servant, the Horseman, and the Doctor.

Under vocal coach John Patrick, most of the cast are consistent with diction and accent, with Keyes and Toot stepping forward with a broad collection of funny, but intelligible voices. Dramaturg Gregory Kable has helped the production remain mindful of the class distinctions of the late 18th century without drowning in design details.

Scenic designer Peter Ksander stays out of the story’s way. A sleek, black downstage area — with eye-popping fuchsia trim, remains uncluttered, with only one or two essential furniture pieces ever in use. Halfway upstage, Ksander employs a gliding platform for dining room conversations; and even farther upstage stands a wall of deep green, with white-trimmed molding and hanging mirrors, for other household scenes.

Between the main downstage playing space and the upstage universe is a silvery curtain, hung ceiling-to-floor. The embossed fabric serves as a barrier, a color-bouncing cyclorama, and an opening through which actors’ heads and limbs can appear.

Lighting designer Cecilia Durbin uses an unexpected palate, with bold flares of purple and magentas thrown amid a more traditional lighting scheme. While these colors are more distracting than supportive, Durbin’s practical elements: pole-top candelabras, hanging chandeliers, and early British pantomime footlights add an unforgettable sense of magic.

In one ballroom scene, Durbin’s nightmarish reds and candelabras fuse with Tracy Bersley’s dizzying choreography and Justin Ellington’s haunting score to pull us into Marianne Dashwood’s anxiety-ridden mind more effectively than Jane Austen ever could.

Sound designer Adam Bintz achieves a good dialogue/music balance for most of Act Two, but Act One music often overwhelmed the actors’ voices, particularly near transitions. Stage manager Charles K. Bayang, assisted by Elizabeth Cutler Ray, keeps the show’s dozens of scene transitions moving smoothly, with almost no hiccups. This fluidity keeps the 2.5 hour show feeling spry.

Whether you love Jane Austen or loathe her, Taibi Magar’s captivating staging of a Kate Hamill’s refreshing and funny new adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is a must-see.

Kate Hamill's stage adaptation of Sense and Sensibility stars (from left) Dan Toot as Sir John Middleton, Rishan Dhamija as Edward Ferrars, and Ray Dooley as Mrs. Jennings (photo by HuthPhoto)

Kate Hamill’s stage adaptation of Sense and Sensibility stars (from left) Dan Toot as Sir John Middleton, Rishan Dhamija as Edward Ferrars, and Ray Dooley as Mrs. Jennings (photo by HuthPhoto)

SECOND OPINION: Oct. 18, 2017 Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/sense-and-sensibility/Event?oid=7493505; Sept. 29, 2017 Raleigh, NC News & Observer mini-preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article176145851.html; Oct. 7, 2016 Minneapolis, MN MinnPost preview by Pamela Espeland: https://www.minnpost.com/artscape/2016/10/sense-and-sensibility-playwright-kate-hamill-adapting-jane-austen-and-making-work-w; and Oct. 7, 2016 Washington, DC Folger Theatre interview with playwright Kate Hamill: https://spotlight.folger.edu/2016/10/07/interview-sense-sensibility-playwright-kate-hamill/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Oct. 18th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/10/kate-hamills-fresh-new-comic-reimagining-of-jane-austens-sense-and-sensibility-is-whimsical-and-witty/.)

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Jane Austen’s SENSE AND SENSIBILITY at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25-27, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 29, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 1-3, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4 and 5 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $15-$57 ($10 UNC students and $12 other college students), with discounts for UNC faculty and staff and U.S. military personnel.

BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or https://tickets.playmakersrep.org/.

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/box-office/groups-and-special-events/.

SHOW: http://playmakersrep.org/show/sense-and-sensibility/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/283381208825601/.

VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep/videos/10155794717435747/.

2017-18 SEASON: https://playmakersrep.org/season/2017-2018-season/.

PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.

PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.

VENUE: http://playmakersrep.org/aboutus/paulgreen.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo.

NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.

NOTE 2: There will be FREE post-show discussions, with members of the cast and creative team, following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25th, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29th, performances.

NOTE 3: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 4th (for more information, click here).

NOTE 4: The Psychoanalytic Center of the Carolinas will sponsor FREE post-show Mindplay psychoanalytic discussions on “The Heart and Mind of Jane Austen,” led by Harold Kudler, MD, after the show’s 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4th, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5th, performances.

OTHER LINKS:

Sense and Sensibility (1811 novel): https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sense-and-Sensibility (Encyclopædia Britannica) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sense_and_Sensibility (Wikipedia).

The Novel: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Jane Austen (English novelist, 1775-1817): https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jane-Austen (Encyclopædia Britannica), http://www.janeaustensoci.freeuk.com/ (Jane Austen Society of the United Kingdom), http://www.jasna.org/ (Jane Austen Society of North America), http://pemberley.com/ (The Republic of Pemberley fan site), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Austen (Wikipedia).

Sense and Sensibility (2014 New York City and 2016 Off-Broadway play): http://bedlam.org/shows/sense-sensibility-2016/ (official web page for the Bedlam production), https://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=5174 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/6135 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sense_and_Sensibility#Adaptations (Wikipedia).

The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Study Guide: https://www.guthrietheater.org/globalassets/pdf/study-guides/senseandsensibility_studyguide.pdf (Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN).

Kate Hamill (New York City-based playwright and actress): http://www.kate-hamill.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/47086 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm8567470/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/kate.hamill (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/katerone (Twitter page).

Taibi Magar (director): https://taibimagar.wordpress.com/ (official website), http://www.playmakersrep.org/artists/taibi-magar/ (PlayMakers Rep bio) http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/47456 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm9235811/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/taibi.magar (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/taibs (Twitter page).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor and director. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.

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