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Who is that man in the black waistcoat with green trimming played by the talented Jason O’Connell? Is it Edward Ferrars, the bumbling, shy scion of the notably wealthy family? Or is it his glad-handing, loud-mouthed brother Robert? Or perhaps it is merely another member of society, content to watch and comment, always comment, on the proceedings in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility? For certain, it is bedlam.
Bedlam, a word that conjures up a lost world of madness, is the perfect description for the uproarious multiplicity of the Bedlam Theatre Company’s productions of Sense and Sensibility, as sensibly adapted by the company’s own Kate Hamill, and Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. Both plays, performed by the same ten talented actors, run in alternating sequence at the Sheen Center now through December 22nd.
A hallmark of the company is its attempt to immerse the audience in the world of the play, as evidenced by O’Connell’s whispered asides. Each show starts with the actors mingling with spectators in street clothes. One can easily mistake an actor like John Russell for just another member of the audience — at least, until that actor takes the stage for a joyous dance that can end in sudden darkness or involve stripping down into costume. Only after this misdirection of a dance-off does the play proper begin.
Both shows — modern adaptations of well-known classics under the guidance of Artistic Director Eric Tucker — rely on a quickening of the pace and movement of the scenery itself to inject new life into what could easily be museum theatre. Most of the company are at their best when drawing a portrait in broad comedic strokes to entertain the audience that surrounds them in the 40 or so seats filling this intimate theatre.
An exception is Andrus Nichols, who fills the stage with her angst, propriety and powerful self-restraint as Elinor Dashwood, a performance with only a few hints of a similar commanding turn by Emma Thompson in the 1995 film. Eric Tucker in bonnet with luxurious brown curls brings both broad humor and unwitting pathos to the role of bumptious, prying Mrs. Jennings while Stephan Wolfert thrives as her bucktoothed male companion Sir John Middleton. A particular highlight of his performance is his turn as a horse. (Yes, a horse, and a very believable one at that.)
In fact, such set pieces — constructed from the actor’s bodies themselves, like a bumpy ride on a carriage made of people or the trees grasping as hands for Kate Hamill’s Marianne as she seeks for a glimpse of her lost love Willoughby on a rainy English hillside — are spectacular, and well worth the price of admission alone, along with the innovative and engaging mobility of the few rolling chairs, tables, windows and chandeliers that constitute the entirety of the props.
But what serves to enliven and quicken Sense and Sensibility only leads to confusion in The Seagull. The play within this play, played for laughs, is a hilarious highlight, but the sympathies of the audience are never quite engaged for characters that are selfish, vain and uncertainly situated in time: with Russian names but a familiarity with cellphones, “The Love Boat” and rap.
Actors and writers are tough to sympathize with even in the best of lights. The challenge of Chekhov’s play is enlisting our understanding of the vampiric nature of art itself to explain the callous behaviour of the middle-aged Trigorin, played with palpable need by John O’Connell, towards the young, naïve actress Nina, embodied by the lithe Laura Baranik. There is no clear message in this staging. Is the new form of theatre proposed by Eric Tucker’s man-child Konstantin better than the old? And what is the point of all that unrequited love if it is to serve as more than an engine of the plot?
Vaishnavi Sharma shines as Irina Arkadina, a fading star (though don’t tell her that!). She trails Trigorin in her wake like a trawl tearing up the unseen bottom of the sea. The only sign of the damage beneath is the lonely seagull above: whether that is Irina’s would-be author son, Tucker’s spoiled, petulant Konstantin, or Baranik’s dreamy Nina. That is a missed truth not quite felt in this production.
John Russell anchors the company as both the louche but charming Willoughby and the comically off-point Shamrayev while Nigel Gore brings gravitas and humour to his roles as the philandering doctor Dorn in The Seagull and Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility. Samantha Steinmetz injects laughs as the poor teacher Medvedenko, embodying at once a kind of shambling oafishness and a longing in a way that never quite reaches the audience from the main characters. She too stands out for her double role as the elder Mrs. Dashwood and the young, foolish Anne Steele in Sense and Sensibility. In fact, the acting of the entire troupe is strong, whether pretending to be surrounded by an invisible pack of dogs, playing both sides of a dinner table conversation in sequence or rendered speechless by an unspeakably pretentious dramatization.
Sound design and staging are also strengths of these productions, water sloshing and wind chimes transporting the audience quickly to the shores of The Seagull‘s lakeside summer home, and the actors make full use of the intimate theatre space with balconies on either side. Just as the actors mingle with the audience in the beginning, it is impossible to know from where or what angle a character may enter or exit. Depending on the seat, this can lead to some missed lines or moments but that is in exchange for yet other lines and moments that seem staged for you alone. The action feels immersive, particularly in Sense and Sensibility, where the company presses in as the weight of society, commenting in disapproval and feigned shock as the power of money and love work at cross-purposes. The pace of both plays is brisk — perhaps eliminating a few too many pauses in the Chekhov — and the entertainment never flags.
Kate Hamill’s excellent adaptation of Jane Austen and performance as Marianne fits my sense of the proper sensibility of this troupe as a whole: innovative and entertaining comedy. But The Seagull, despite some fine individual performances and moments, never quite takes flight above the bedlam.
Ann Daniels is the nom de plume for a NYC-based actress and writer. A graduate of UC Berkeley and Tisch School of the Arts, she currently lives in Brooklyn with her journalist husband.