‘Bedlam’s Sense and Sensibility’

A kinetic, minimalist staging of a Jane Austen classic

Susan Saccoccia | 1/3/2018, 11:27 a.m.
Jane Austen’s 1811 novel “Sense and Sensibility,” was her first published book, and, like her other masterpieces to come, it ...
Nigel Gore, Maggie Adams McDowell and Ryan Quinn in “Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility.” Ashley Garrett

Jane Austen’s 1811 novel “Sense and Sensibility,” was her first published book, and, like her other masterpieces to come, it portrays the quest for love, marriage and money among the people she knew best — 18th-century English gentry — with wry wit and wisdom.

Mining the story’s timeless humor and insight is New York-based theater company Bedlam’s inventive production, “Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility,” on stage at the American Repertory Theater in Harvard Square through Jan. 14.

As Austen’s story opens, the patriarch of the Dashwood family dies, leaving his estate to his son, a fop whose greedy wife protests his intent to heed his father’s dying request — that he take care of his mother and two sisters, Elinor and Marianne. The three women must leave their stately house, now occupied by the son and his family. A benevolent relative offers Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters a cottage in the countryside, where despite their diminished prospects, the sisters draw suitors. Elinor, who embodies sense, as in wisdom and good judgment, attracts the kind and honorable Robert Ferrars. Her romantic younger sister, Marianne, is entranced by the dashing John Willoughby and spurns the older and more reliable Colonel Brandon, whom Elinor describes as “a sensible man.”

Swirling around these five core characters is an array of distant relatives and neighbors whose self-seeking intrigues complicate the sisters’ path to love and marriage and lives that balance sense and sensibility.

Transforming this social satire into a live performance faithful to the novel’s heart, wisdom and humor, Bedlam’s production, running two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission, is theater at its most fundamental.

Playwright and actress Kate Hamill wrote the adaptation and played Marianne in Bedlam’s critically acclaimed off-Broadway productions, both the 2014 premier and a six-month run in 2016. Leaving behind the knowing guidance of the novel’s narrative voice, the adaptation is all show and no tell. Likewise, the staging, orchestrated by Bedlam artistic director Eric Tucker, plunges right into the action.

True to its name, the Bedlam troupe creates a ruckus. The company is known for tackling the classics with a kinetic, pared-down approach that distills their emotional essence while remaining faithful to the texts. Central Square Theater in Cambridge has hosted Bedlam productions of “Saint Joan” and “Twelfth Night,” and in March, ArtsEmerson will present Bedlam’s “Hamlet and “Saint Joan” at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.

Bedlam’s minimalist staging demonstrates the power of live theater to cast a spell through acting, words, sound and spectacle, with the audience as knowing, complicit partner.

The staging asks a lot of the cast, 10 actors who play 20 characters. An ensemble of solid character actors, they are also as agile as circus clowns. While playing their roles straight, they employ all the tricks in an actor’s book, including plenty of dance and moments of improvisation and semi-spontaneous exchanges with audience members.

Seeing the same shape-shifting actor who is an ardent suitor become a moment later a mumbling dowager and believing in both, the audience is aware of its willing part in the artifice.