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Review: ‘Sense and Sensibility’ still relevant for today’s audiences

THEATER   June 22 2023 CAPE COD TIMES REVIEW

It’s not just marrying, but marrying well that’s the subject of detailed and scrupulous planning in this fresh adaptation of Jane Austen’s witty, fast-moving comedy “Sense and Sensibility,” onstage at Cape Playhouse through July 1. Don’t mistake this for an orderly drama – Austen’s clever plot does a mix-and-match of marital outcomes and plot entanglements, adding well-placed deceits and missteps. “The course of true love” may not run smooth, but it sure can be greased by a little money and means.

Name of show: “Sense and Sensibility.” 

Adapted by Kate Hamill from the novel by Jane Austen, directed by Jessica Holt, performed at Cape Playhouse. 

What it’s about: Austen’s classic plot weaves a nimble comedy of manners, where the dictates of society often fall in conflict with wishes of the heart.  The activities center on the lives of the Dashwood sisters who, with their mother, become penniless after their father dies, leaving his entire estate to his son by an earlier marriage.

Steady Elinor and dramatic, tempestuous Marianne must navigate the treacherous waters of English social norms and land on their feet – that is, achieve marriage to respectable men of means. This high-spirited look at the preoccupations of the time presents a talented cast acting a variety of roles – from clueless heirs, unscrupulous lovers and more honorable male suitors, to a wild variety of women characters, from calm and controlled to scheming or naïve, to drama queens and unstoppable gossips. The playwright captures the mores of this earlier, more confined era, while assuring us that its underlying emotions and vulnerabilities are timeless and belong to all of us.

 See it or not: This creative, funny adaptation of Austen’s classic is not to be missed, beginning with the amazing set (scenic designer Alexander Woodward) offering a bare-bones look at the Playhouse stage, open to its backstage innards, beams and rafters, like a work in progress, with occasional add-ons of gauzy draperies or a glittery chandelier. A jack-of-all-trades cast takes on numerous roles, both human and, yes, animal. Wigs or dresses may be added on stage, and scenes change as a chair is rolled around or a spotlight switches direction. Applause is due to fine direction by Jessica Holt. 

Highlights: The cast gleefully takes on occasional roles as dogs, sheep or an impatient horse, offering some priceless moments of humor. Jenn Gambatese (Elinor Dashwood) and Manna Nichols (her sister Marianne) play off each other perfectly, supplying some of Austen’s famous observations on the human condition. A noisy Greek chorus fills us in on all the gossip that’s shaping the outcome of the story. Be on the lookout for a few rock-out dance numbers that surpass your grandmother’s minuet. 

Interesting fact: Playwright/actor Kate Hamill was named the Wall Street Journal’s Playwright of the Year in 2017, and one of the top five most-produced playwrights nationwide in the 2018-19 season. She premiered the role of Marianne off-Broadway at New York’s Bedlam Theater in 2014.

Worth noting: There’s a showstopper Heathcliff moment between Marianne and Willoughby (Erik Kochenberger), as music swells and the cast switches to slo-mo to capture the instant when romance blooms on the moors or, actually, in the Playhouse aisle.

One more thing: This is a good time to take note of the skillful way each season comes together at the Playhouse. A show closes Saturday night, the set is “struck,” and on Sunday  a new set begins to bloom. The next production opens the following Wednesday, as cast and crew mount the new production in little more than two days. It’s amazing, really.

Barbara Clark

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