Making sense of a new ‘Sensibility’
Jane Austen’s classic “Sense and Sensibility” gets a rousing and quick-moving new adaptation at Good Company Players’ 2nd Space Theatre. How quick? Just as in the recent New York production, the furniture in the Fresno version is on rollers — which makes it all the easier to whisk the set pieces around.
Director Kathleen McKinley is known for her long career working with students at Fresno State, but she’s getting out into the community with this production, now in its opening weekend. I caught up with her to talk about the show.
Q: Tell us about this new adaptation.
A: Written by New York City actress Kate Hamill, this adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility” premiered in 2014 to rave reviews. The play compresses the action of the book to focus on the adventures and plight of a widow and her three daughters who are left penniless due to British inheritance laws of the 1790’s. They are evicted from their manor home by a greedy daughter-in-law and must rely upon the generosity of enthusiastic, but nosey, boisterous relatives who are intent upon finding husbands for the daughters. As the Dashwood women resettle in a tiny cottage, the two older daughters, Elinor and Marianne, are thrust into the company of bachelors, both eligible and not, along with intrusive socialites both in the country and London.
Q: From what I’ve read, the Bedlam Theatre Company’s New York production was fast-paced and used a whirlwind of theatrical techniques, including actors playing multiple roles and lots of quick scene changes. Does your 2nd Space production share those qualities? How do you think your production will be different than the New York version?
A: I like to direct Fresno premieres of plays that I have never seen, and this is the case with this new adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility.” I suspect the Bedlam production emerged from workshop-type rehearsals as a group of ten youngish actors had loads of fun with the story and used minimal costumes, set, etc. Interviews with the playwright confirm that much of the dialogue and stage directions included in the published version arose from improvisation, and she invites directors to be “as creative as you wish!” (No need to tell me twice!) Our 2nd Space cast includes 13 actors ranging in age from 16 to 76, and with the exception of Elinor and Marianne, all play multiple roles; Terry Lewis play five roles including a friendly hound and an “over-bred woman!” And of course, I wanted to take advantage of Ginger Kay Lewis’s skill for designing sumptuous period costumes, and David Pierce’s scenic artistry, so audiences can expect a visually stylish production.
Dialogue taken from Austen’s book is preciously preserved, but I have rescored some monologues that are set to rhythm, and through movement, draw a connection between our current obsession with social media and the obsession of a chorus of 18th century Gossips who spy upon and judge the behavior of the Dashwood women. Instead of five distinct Gossips noted in the script, I move actors in and out of this chorus, and on occasion, an individual may even comment on a character he or she is about to play!
The furniture is on wheels as with the New York production, but not merely for comic effect. In the minds of the Dashwood sisters, the rolling furniture, door, windows, along with the larger-than-life characters who confront them, and moments of surreal movement and lighting represent how Elinor and Marianne view new romantic temptation, hostile socialites, and an uncontrollable world. As Elinor gains more control, she too manipulates the door to protect her sister. Lastly, the furniture shifts cinematically to change the viewing perspectives for the audience.
Q: Speaking of 2nd Space, it’s been a while since you’ve directed a play other than at Fresno State. What drew you to this project?
A: I acted in several shows in early seasons of the 2nd Space and enjoyed myself immensely. When the stars aligned in terms of my availability and this imaginative, new play, I accepted the offer to direct.
Q: Elinor, the older sister, is the “Sense” of the title, which is pretty clear to the modern viewer. But “Sensibility,” which describes Marianne (the younger sister), is meant by Austen in a different way than we might think of it today. What is your take on this?
A: In Austen’s world, “sensibility” is emotion. Marianne follows her heart, speaking frankly and displaying passion shockingly out of step for a woman of her era. She experiences wild joy, but also devastating heartbreak.
Q: Tell us a little about your Elinor and Marianne. As director, how did you work with your actors to shape these characters?
A: Jessica Rose Knotts plays Elinor and Na’ Vauge Jackson plays Marianne. Navi recently relocated to Fresno and this show is her local theatre debut; Jessica is a familiar face in local productions. Primary to our process was discovering the nuanced relationship between two sisters who are very different in temperament, yet deeply committed to each other. As Marianne and Elinor, Navi and Jessica tease, compete, criticize, encourage, and protect each other against worldly forces that are rarely kind to unattached women of no means. In their private scenes together, their most intimate fears and dreams are revealed.
Q: Do you worry at all that Jane Austen purists might resist this new, breezier adaptation?
A: I hope that “Janeites” (devoted Austen fans) will be gratified that our post-modern interpretation might lure a new audience to Austen’s books. You liked the show, you will love the novel!
Q: I’ve always been fascinated with Austen’s frank acknowledgement of money in her novels. (I always smile when I think of some gentleman or lady described as “having $10,000 pounds a year,” referring to their estimated yearly income from their estates. If only we were that honest today.) Women, especially, hoped for a match with a good provider. This practicality on Austen’s part can sometimes be diminished in adaptations of Austen’s work. What are your thoughts? Is “Sense and Sensibility” a pair of love stories? Or a pair of love-and-money stories?
A: The play poses the age-old question: Can money buy happiness? In this play, as well as in Austen’s book, society tallies up one’s value as a potential mate in terms of money. Contemporary studies confirm that freedom from want is certainly part of the happiness equation, but those who choose a mate only on the basis of wealth do not fare as well in Austen’s world or in ours. So, this play is a love story that includes a nice cottage to live in and a helpful live-in couple who chop the wood for a cozy fire and serve tea.
Q: Dancing is a big part of the Austen milieu. How is that conveyed in your production?
A: In addition to the “ballet of the rolling furniture” that propels the hapless Dashwoods from scene to scene and location to location, audience members can look forward to lovely Regency era dance choreography by Ruth Griffin.
Q: Anything to add?
A: Our production ranges from farce to dance to surrealism to deep pain to true love. Enjoy the ride!
“Sense and Sensibility,” through Feb. 25, 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave. Tickets are $20 general, $17 students and seniors.
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Opening night was delightful!