A sweeping novel like Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility isn't one that travels easily to the stage. Too many picnics, rainstorms, carriage rides and strolls down country lanes in the 19th-century classic. The 1995 film did it right. Director Ang Lee had an all-star British cast led by actress Emma Thompson, who won an Oscar for her smart screenplay adaptation. The movie used gorgeous locations in Devonshire and Wiltshire, capturing every delicious detail of the lives of the penniless Dashwood girls, their suitors and wealthy relations.
The book was newly adapted for the theater last year by playwright Kate Hamill, who premiered her version in a critically praised stripped-down, movement-heavy staging by New York City's low-budget Bedlam Theatre. (There's also a new musical Sense that opened in Chicago this month. Oh, dear.)
Dallas Theater Center is using Hamill's script in its current production at Kalita Humphreys Theater, but not the same way Bedlam did. Director Sarah Rasmussen and various designers have tarted it up with 18 actors (almost twice the size of Bedlam's cast) in an awkward blend of big-budget trappings wrapped around pantomimed dinner parties.
In a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't style, DTC's cast members, some of whom are disastrously miscast, play multiple roles, wearing a cavalcade of complicated wigs and period costumes. Scenic designer Andrew Boyce sends enormous windowpanes and a grand piano riding around under glimmering chandeliers on Kalita's revolving stage, which is covered in herringbone planking. Pretty chaises roll on to catch the chassis of this or that swooning Dashwood. Then when the ladies sit down for supper wearing their lovely gowns by costumer Moria Sine Clinton, there's no table in front of them. They pantomime fussing with invisible napkins and sipping from invisible goblets. For the carriage journey back to Casa Dashwood, they ride like Miss Daisy on adjoining chairs, bouncing and swaying as a "driver" stands on a chair behind them, cracking his invisible whip on invisible horses.
They do this for two and a half hours of tedious shawl-folding, fake biscuit nibbling and mannered tittering under bonnets that sit askew atop those wigs. The last half hour is the longest, with characters delivering speeches so flat and wordy, you will fantasize picking them off with invisible arrows shot from an invisible bow.
Hamill has reduced the plot, for those who need a refresher, to its study-notes basics. Widow Dashwood (Christie Vela, painfully miscast) and her daughters Elinor (New York import Laura Gragtmans), Marianne (SMU grad student Morgan Lauré, letting her fake curls do most of the acting) and Margaret (a delightfully energetic London Hibbs) move into a small country cottage. They lack funds because dead dad left it all to his son from a first wife, so Mrs. Dashwood hopes to attract rich husbands for her two eldest girls.
Elinor, the oldest, is clever but dour (especially as expressionless Gragtmans plays her). Marianne is a flibbertigibbet who develops a lusty crush on the county's sexiest swain, Mr. Willoughby (DTC company member Daniel Duque-Estrada, in another mismatch of actor and role). Lurking around several scenes is brooding Col. Brandon (William DeMeritt, too young and wearing painted gray muttonchops). Brandon has the tepids for Marianne.
The only prospective mate in Elinor's limited orbit is the stuttering Edward Ferrars, played by elegant DTC actor Alex Organ, who is so right for his role, he seems to have fake-carriage-ridden in from another production. A misunderstanding has Elinor believing Edward is betrothed to the unpleasant Lucy Steele, played by Allison Pistorius, muting her comic skills to fit in among the unfunny. Edward's snooty younger brother Robert (Brandon J. Murphy) complicates everyone's marriage plans by inheriting all his family money. (At Bedlam, Edward and Robert were played by the same actor with no change of costume.)
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Between scenes in and around the Dashwood drawing room, a squad of village "gossips" in black hats and capes come on to fill in exposition and to comment on the action, the way characters do in A Christmas Carol. There's a lot of dashing on and off the stage in this show. Actors rumble up and down Kalita's aisles and pop up in the box seats.
Bothering to do interesting things in these sequences and in a variety of roles are strong comic actors Julie Johnson, Vanessa DeSilvio and Brandon Potter. They play cousins, in-laws, gossips and members of the Cratchit family, defying old Scrooge as they tuck into their Christmas pudding. No, wait, that's the other play that looks exactly like Sense and Sensibility, at least on the Kalita stage. If only Sense had some ghosts, it could be Sixth Sense and Sensibility.
Instead, it's just a dispiriting attempt at heavily costumed literary rom-com. DTC has a snoozer every season. Last year it was the Sherlock Holmes play. This season they've already had The Book Club Play, which means it's a two-snoozer year thus far for Dallas' largest theater company.
Sense and Sensibility
continues through May 24 at Dallas Theater Center at Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Tickets $18-$95 (subject to change) at 214-880-0202 or dallastheatercenter.org