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A CurtainUp Review
Sense & Sensibility

My protégé, as you call him, is a sensible man; and sense will always have attractions for me. Yes, Marianne, even in a man over forty.
— Elinor to her younger sister who represents the passionate sensibility to Elinor's sense
Austen Sisters
The Dashwood sisters Jessica Frey, Andrus Nichols, Kate Hamill and their mother Samantha Steinmetz
The Dashwood sisters — one sensible, the other more impetuous . . . both, true to the first part of their surname, dashingly pretty and charming, but poor — were the first of such impoverished young women at the center of the country life style on which Jane Austen cast a satiric eye. While this made Jane Austen one of literature's super successes, the world of her novels was one in which the only goal for even well bred and well-read girls like Elinor and Marianne Dashwood was to marry well. And since Austen's own goal was first and foremost to entertain, she made sure that marriage would bring her pretty spinsters love as well as financial security —, but that her happy endings were preceded by plenty of plot twists involving dashed hopes and deceits played out during gossipy dinner parties, colorful balls and romps across the English country side.

Given Austen's continued popularity, there's always room for a new adaptation, especially one as witty as that by Kate Hamill, a member of Bedlam, one of the theater world's most inventive and unique reappraisers of classic works. Even if you're not one of Austen's millions of devotees, I guarantee that you'll have a fine time at this peppy new take on the Dashwood sisters' travails through losing their father, their home and grappling with the stumbling blocks standing between them and the inevitable happy ending.

For starters,the Gym at Judson Theater is ideally suited to Bedlam's mission of presenting their work in spaces that allow the audience to be right up close to the story being told. In this case the stage is a long runway with just three rows of padded bridge chairs on risers at either side. You won't find another show in Manhattan at any price, that will immerse you this completely in what's happening on stage.

As directed by Eric Tucker, Austen's story is an often over-the-top romp through the many locations and characters that makes a virtue out of multiple casting and decidedly low-tech stagecraft. Despite the constant role switching by some of the actors, and the absence of fancy props and projected backdrops to set the scene, Austen's plot is intact and easy to follow even if you haven't read the book or seen the true to that book movie still available as a DVD.

The thoroughly now introductory dance featuring the entire casttransitions handily into Austen's old England. As they dance and sing, they one by one shed the modern clothes Angela Huff has designed to fit over handsome period costumes underneath.

An array of stylized, campy theatrical devices are for the most part ingeniously inventive rather than excessively gimmicky. And despite the often literal bedlam created by the actors turned into a chorus surrounding the main characters, the comic relief provided by the multi-tasking cast members does not come at the expense of the emotional arcs Elinor and Marianne go through.

Credit for these emotional reveals naturally owes much to Andrus Nichols for her beguiling portrayal of the self-controlled, always sensible Elinor; as well as the way adapter Kate Hamill plays her version of the more ebullient Marianne. When not part of the dancing and babbling chorus, Jason O'Connell and Edmund Lewis are also strong emotional presences as Edward Ferrars (the man Elinor loves) and Colonel Brandon, who Marianne doesn't learn to appreciates after her disappointing romance with the handsome opportunist John Willoughby (John Russell, intriguingly also playing Elinor and Marianne's hen-pecked stepbrother).

As already noted, Bedlam has made the double role playing and absence of costly and tech savvy staging more distinct assets rather than bows to make-do budgets. Some of these role switches occur mid scene so that occasionally two characters portrayed by the same actor hilariously turn out to be talking to each other. Among the funniest role playing challenges are two scenes calling for a horse to gallop half way across the stage.

Director Tucker and Kate Young provide appropriate sound effects for he horses and other scene supporting noises. But the real coup de theater trick is the way John McDermott has enabled the cast to switch scenes without fuss or stage hands because his very basic furnishings are all on wheels that can be rolled on and just pushed out as needed. McDermott is fast becoming the go-to designer for any company looking for someone to create low cost, highly effective sets. Besides the clever roll-on-and-off props, he's here also provided a glimpse of the Devonshire landscape with large paintings instead of resorting to the currently de rigeur projections.

The rolled on sets do tend to get a bit too much of a good thing around the two hour mark of the two and a half hour show. I also wouldn't have minded if Stephan Wolfert and Gabra Zackman had gone a bit easier on their mugging for their portrayals of the toothy Sir John Middleton and Gabra Zackman's relentless matchmaker Mrs. Jennings. That said this is one of the most amusing, original theatrical entertainments now running anywhere in Manhattan. Don't miss it.

Postscript: As the the actors are double tasking at the Judson Gym, director Tucker is also doing double duty as a director of the New York premiere of a timely new play, Dead dog Park over at 59E59 through March 6th.

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Bedlam at the Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson St.
Jane Austen's novel adapted by Kate Hamill
Directed by Eric Tucker
Cast: Laura Baranik (Fanny Dashwood/Lucy Steele), Jessica Frey (Margaret Dashwood), Kate Hamill (Marianne Dashwood), Edmund Lewis (Colonel Brandon), Andrus Nichols (Elinor Dashwood), Jason O'Connell (Edward Ferrars), John Russell (John Dashwood/John Willoughby), Samantha Steinmetz (Mrs. Dashwood/Anne Steele), Stephan Wolfert (Sir John Middleton) and Gabra Zackman (Mrs. Jennings).
Sets: John McDermott
Lighting: Les Dickert
Costumes: Angela Huff
Choreography: Alexandra Beller
Sound: Mr. Tucker and Kate Young
Stage Manager:Katharine Whitney
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours with intermission
7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 2 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday
From 1/06/16; opening 2/14/16;multiple extenstion-- not closing 10/02/16
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at Feb. 10th matinee

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