REVIEW | ‘Sense and Sensibility’ meets marriage and money | arts and entertainment

Kate Hamill’s theatrical adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” is the latest FSU/Asolo Conservatory production.

Hamill’s play is a comedy; Austen’s novel is not. This double vision is the comic engine of the play.

The playwright’s comedic strategy assumes you know the source material.

Based on audience feedback, a lot of people did. With the eagerness of a “Rocky Horror” crowd, they reacted in advance to the twists and quotes of the tale. (Hardcore Jane Austen fans, no doubt.) They knew the story cold and hard.

In case you skipped your Jane Austen reading homework, here’s the gist.

England is the place; 1811 is the time. Mr and Mrs Dashwood and their three daughters, Elinor (Rebecca Rose Mims), Marianne (Sharon Pearlman) and Margaret (Brielle Rivera Headrington), live happily on a large estate in Sussex.

Then Mr. Dashwood suddenly falls dead. Their happiness also dies.

Through primogeniture, John (Rickey Watson Jr.), the sisters’ spiky little half-brother, inherits everything. His uncharitable wife (Brooke Turner) tells him to keep it. He says, “Yes my dear.” And expels the women of the family.

Isáyah Phillips, Sharon Pearlman and Rebecca Rose Mims speak in “Sense and Sensibility”. (Courtesy of Frank Atura.)

Except for a meager allowance, Dashwood’s widow and three daughters lose everything. A family friend offers accommodation in a small cottage in Cornwall. Margaret is still a child. But Elinor and Marianne are marriageable.

Hooking up a suitable (i.e.: “rich”) husband is their only way out of the cottage. Luckily, the sisters meet two suitable suitors.

Marianne finds the debauched Willoughby (Trezure Coles). Elinor reunites with soulful Edward Ferrars (Isayah Phillips). Love is blooming! Then, without explanation, the suitors dump the sisters.

Will true love bring them together? Most of you probably know this. Otherwise, read the book or go see the play.

It may sound like a love story, but it’s not. At least not to the gossip that keeps tabs on the Dashwood sisters’ misfortune. In their materialistic mind, fortune is the real story.

Their chatter about marital issues sounds like a stock market report….

Lord X is going to receive a huge inheritance when his mother croaks. (Uptick!) The Dashwood sisters lose their fortune. (Massive sale!)

These nosy high-society idiots are fully aware of the sisters’ lost love and utterly indifferent. Marry for love? What’s love got to do with it? Sensible ladies marry for the money. Sensible gentlemen are also calculating.

These gossips laugh at the story of the sisters. But they are outside and looking inside. They are blind to the story of the heart.

For Elinor and Marianne, this inner story is sad as hell. Hamill tells this story. But his acting is still hilarious.

How does she do it? I’ll get back to you on that.

Director James Dean Palmer kicks off Hamill’s farce. Its physical comedy owes a huge directorial debt to Monty Python. The men in cross-dressing speak in the shrill manner of the “Pepperpot”. Other actors simulate horses by hitting coconuts together.

Thanks to Palmer’s staging, the audience alternates between laughter and sobs. But he’s just true to script.
Hamill’s piece is more like two pieces. One is a ridiculous game; the other is a tearful tragedy.

They don’t go together. But they’re stuck in the same theatrical elevator.

The actors of the conservatory make the most of this schizoid saga. Some play it frankly.

Elinor de Mims is a rational being who keeps her heart on a leash and her thoughts to herself. Pearlman’s Marianne is a free spirit who follows her heart and speaks her mind. As for their idols, Phillips’ Ferrars is a good guy. Willoughby de Coles is a cad, but still a good boy. Neither wanted to hurt the ladies. Both did. They blame wills, inheritances and hormones.

(It’s like the company’s fault, you know?)

Strolling on the silly side, Mrs. Jennings is a relic of the Georgian sentimental age. She feels and springs and shares.

The thirties of the sensitive Regency generation are rolling their eyes.

(Think of an aging hippie chatting to stockbrokers in the ’80s.)

Headrington’s childlike Margaret provides periodic comic relief, but does not overdo it. She would be irritating like a kid in her own right.

Hamill’s comedy/tragedy comes to life in Jeffery Weber’s versatile setting. It is part strong tree, part MC Escher’s dream and totally devoid of historical realism. Equally ahistorical are Jordan Jeffer’s wacky costumes. All this wildly creative mash-up of genres, genres and rules, adds up to a very fun piece. I laughed, but I didn’t know why.

And what kind of game is it anyway?

This is not a parody of Austen’s novel. Hamill takes storytelling seriously and cares about his characters. But she wraps him in a fluffy ball of superficial nonsense. Why is it funny? And who is she kidding?

My best guess? The ruling class of Regency England was mad to keep up appearances. Vanity, illusion, flash and filigree, exuberance, illusion, pose and pretension. As the saints have always said, none of this matters.

In the minds of the English top flight, that was all that mattered. That’s what Hamill laughs at.

She loves history. She hates society. To find? Without reading Austen’s novels, probably not.

It would be like watching “Blazing Saddles” if you had never seen a western.

Jane Austen superfans will definitely get the joke. They will come to Hamill’s play with a granular prior knowledge of Regency society that the story satirizes. They know this society so well that they don’t even have to think about it.

Good thing. Regency society was downright wicked. If you think about it too much, it starts to spoil the fun.

England in 1811 was a dystopia for 50% of its inhabitants.

Women had no property rights – including upper-class women. They were totally dependent on powerful men for their lives and livelihoods. It was a man’s world and a woman’s nightmare. It’s not funny at all.

But don’t listen to me, dear reader.

Do not think. Just laugh and enjoy the game.

It’s the sensible thing to do.

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