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In quick and witty ‘Sense,’ Jane Austen meets the 21st Century

THEATER REVIEW

I’ve had the pleasure of watching Mary Piona and Patricia Hoffman portray many characters in 2nd Space Theatre productions over the years, but on this night they’re playing a type of role I’ve never seen them do before:

Nightstands.

You read that correctly. In one of dozens of charming bits of theatricality you’ll encounter in the new Good Company Players production of “Sense and Sensibility,” Piona and Hoffman literally play furniture. They’re human manifestations of a late 18th Century bedroom set.

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Tight-knit Dashwood family: Julia Reimer, left, as Mrs. Dashwood; Na’vauge Jackson, as Marianne, Gigi Dickerson, as Margaret; and Jessica Knotts, as Elinor.

In a comic tableau that upends the audience’s point of view, it’s as if we’re looking down from the ceiling upon the marital bed of the noxious John and Fanny Dashwood, who are staying up late figuring out new ways to treat John’s half-sisters badly. (One of the key plot points of Jane Austen’s classic tale of love and money is that after the death of their father, John inherits the whole estate while Elinor and Marianne, his wonderful sisters, get booted out of the family home.) If you’ve seen “Hairspray” on stage, you’ll recognize the visual perspective: It’s just like when a propped-up Tracy Turnblad in the opening scene is depicted lying in bed as she belts out “Good Morning Baltimore.”

Piona and Hoffman play several other delightful and memorable characters each in “Sense and Sensibility,” but in this particular scene they’re in firm supporting-role mode, you could say. Piona, as one nightstand, holds a wine glass in her hands, with the lip of the glass held toward the audience. (We’re supposed to be looking down, remember.) On the other side of the “bed” — a stretched-out sheet — a similarly nightstanding Hoffman holds a candle, likewise positioned. It took me a few seconds for my brain — taking in the askew view — to process what I was seeing. But when I did, I couldn’t stop grinning.

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I found that grin popping up time and again in this charming production, which is directed with verve and finesse by Kathleen McKinley and acted in a thoroughly spiffy manner by a well-prepared cast. While I’m not sure that this new adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility” — which received its world premiere in a 2014 production staged by Brooklyn’s innovative Bedlam theater company — is completely successful in terms of representing the singular tone of Austen’s work, I consider it a noble effort.

How fast-paced is the show? Most of the stage furniture (except of the human variety) is on wheels, to make it that much easier to whip on and off. Actors change roles (and genders, and even species) quickly and liberally, sometimes in a matter of seconds. Chunks of exposition that have been boiled down by playwright Kate Hamill from Austen’s pages of pert prose are tossed out by various breathless characters at the audience like little narrative cherry bombs.

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Bird’s eye view: What passes for a bedroom scene in “Sense and Sensibility.” Photo / Good Company Players

McKinley has a grand time with Austen in fast-and-furious mode. While Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s sumptuous costumes and David Pierce’s clever scenic design is of a proudly period nature, the production has a contemporary vibe throughout. From the opening scene featuring the cast as “Gossips” disseminating information in real time (just like social media today) to the brisk scene changes, the production feels fresh and geared toward 21st Century attention spans.

The cast is strong. Jessica Knotts is a sturdy and affecting Elinor (the “Sense” of the title). On a surface level, all is rationality and pragmatism, but underneath, you get the sense of an Elinor ready to dive into deep, passionate waters. Na’Vauge Jackson, as Marianne, the “Sensibility” of the title — in Austen’s time, a term meant to signify romantic excess — is likewise impactful, offering her own nod to practicality in a textured performance. In Austen’s novel, the key to these wonderfully drawn characters is they aren’t quite the polar opposites that they might at first appear, and they manage to teach each other a lesson or two.

Other standouts include Julia Reimer as Mrs. Dashwood, mother to Elinor and Marianne, who is forced with her daughters to move to a humble cottage after the death of her husband. (Those pesky English inheritance laws could be mightily unfair.) Terry Lewis excels at several plum roles, including the pensive Edward Ferrars, who is obviously smitten with Elinor, and also Edward’s brother, Robert, the much more flamboyant sibling of the pair. (He also portrays a deep-voiced canine, providing an impressively realistic sounding bark that can only come from close and loving immersion with humankind’s best friends.) Gigi Dickerson, as the youngest Dashwood daughter, Margaret, is a delight. And I was impressed with Daniel Sutherland as the reserved Col. Brandon, a dark-horse suitor.

Ruth Griffin peps things up with her engaging choreography, and Joielle Adams’ lighting design helps give a cheery ambiance to the proceedings.

Only two notable weakness arose for me. One comes from having actors play multiple characters: Sometimes it’s difficult to track the changes. I’m thinking specifically of the hard-working Alex Vaux, whose John Willoughby (the handsome rake who sweeps Marianne off her feet) and John Dashwood seemed virtually indistinguishable to me.

The other is a tendency for the comic sensibility of the production to drift too far toward campiness. At one point, Alyssa Gaynor, playing the slightly vulgar Lucy Steele — who turns out to be a potential romantic rival for Elinor — provides a blissfully silly interpretation of her character. (She stretches out one of her pointy-toe shoes in a decidedly unladylike way.) Yet later, Lucy seems to cross a line in her demeanor, becoming more of a caricature. I felt at times that the adaptation, in its effort to put a brisk and modern spin on everything, occasionally ends up laughing at Jane Austen instead of with her.

I’ll be curious throughout the run to compare notes with Austen fans who are more diligent than me.

You could arrange the English-reading public on a spectrum of sorts when it comes to Jane Austen fanaticism, ranging from those who can give you a half-hour lecture on the necklines of Regency dresses to those who wouldn’t know Colin Firth in “Pride and Prejudice” if he bit them on the nose. I fall in the middle of this spectrum, I think, as an enthusiastic reader of the novels and viewer of the films based upon them (I happen to love Patricia Rozema’s 1999 “Mansfield Park”), and I did once make a pilgrimage to Bath, but I lack the encyclopedic recall that I’ve experienced in some fans.

What’s missing for me at times in this brisk new “Sense and Sensibility” is the fierce emotional underpinnings of Austen’s prose. I want to feel as if my heart has flooded with joy when we reach the end of Elinor and Marianne’s journey. And that’s not something I experienced with this incarnation.

But it’s fun, sweet, lively and happy. Maybe this production will even inspire someone to read the book for the first time. For those reasons alone, it makes all the sense in the world not to miss it.


Show info

“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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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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