When I first walked in to Austin Playhouse’s Sense and Sensibility, I expected a pleasant, if dry, evening of Austen-esque wit. When the actors burst on to the scene, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” blaring through the theater and chairs wheeling around the stage, I knew this was something truly different. Playwright Kate Hammill’s Sense and Sensibility has taken the heart of the original novel and given it a bright, shiny coat of paint, emphasizing the humor and amping up some of the more ridiculous moments. Director Lara Toner Haddock takes this and runs with it, creating a effervescent journey through the English countryside as we follow the Dashwood sisters through their loves, their losses, and all their misadventures, all with a lithe, lively, and energetic tone.
Everything from the Haddock’s fast-paced direction, Mike Toner’s modular set design, to Don Day’s clever lighting cues is in service of keeping the action moving, and the result is peppy journey through the Austen classic that never feels rushed, but also never feels staid or boring. The actors are constantly in motion, with even simple conversations in the foreground being underlined by action in the background. There are very few still scenes in the production, but those few slow moments gain much more importance, such as the handful important conversations held between the two elder Dashwood sisters. It all comes together for an incredibly fun time, that still never strays too far from the source material.
Few performances capture the vivacious spirit of the piece than that of Marie Fahlgren as Marianne Dashwood. At first blush, she seems to be tackling the role with an Emma Watson precociousness. As the play wears on, however, and her actions become more over-the-top, she shows an astounding skill for for comedic physicality, reaching Harold Lloyd levels of mugging, but without ever losing the sweetness and charm that make Marianne such a delightful character to watch. Even as we see her wailing on the floor in sorrow, Fahlgren never loses her sense of humor, her actions so exaggerated that you can’t help but crack up.
Through her past productions, Jess Hughes has shown a very modern aesthetic that works incredibly well in contemporary works, and as such I wondered how these skills would serve her in a piece from the regency period. Luckily, her talents translate perfect to Elinor Dashwood, with her strength, sensitivity, and economy of expression creating a well-rounded everywoman, the perfect straight women to the mad folks who inhabit the play. Elinor acts as the emotional backbone to the play in many ways, and Hughes’ subtle, but confident choices make her the perfect choice for the role.
Few actresses light up a stage as vividly as Katie Kohler. Whether she’s playing the ebullient youngest Dashwood sister, Margaret, or the haughty Lucy Steele, Kohler brings a boundless energy to the role. Her experience in mime and clowning through her silent improv troupe “The Back Pack” is on full display here, as her every movement and mannerism can leave the audience in stitches. Something as simple as jumping over a puddle becomes a laugh riot in the hands of Kohler, and when she gets to take center stage, it’s a delight to behold. Though her roles may be smaller than many of the other actors, she makes the most of every moment, and I for one found may attention drifting to her during certain stretches, to see what shenanigans she might be getting up to. Costume designer Buffy Manners’ choice to clothe her in bright yellow was an ingenious one, further exaggerating the exuberance of the performer, and making her practically glow on stage.
The actresses portraying the Dashwoods aren’t the only stellar performances here, but to list out everything I love would take up another few pages, so a quick rundown: Lara Wright shines in her handful of performances, including a pitch-perfect scene in which she has a conversation, then a brawl, with herself; Joey Banks brings waves of laughter playing double duty as both the bumbling, but charming Edward Ferrars, as well as his arrogant blowhard of a brother, Robert Ferrars; Huck Huckaby is at his taciturn best as Colonel Brandon, showing a softness of heart beneath a stony exterior; and Stephen Mercantel is undeniably charismatic as the handsome, but conniving John Willoughby.
Austin Playhouse’s Sense and Sensibility may be the most fun you’ll ever have with an Austen adaptation, with clever and hilarious choices being made all the way down the line. There’s not a performer out of place, the action is well-paced and vibrant, and the production design, while admittedly basic, does quite a lot with very little. Whether you’re an Austen fan, or one who balks at the very thought of the author, there’s plenty to love here, and it’s hard to think of anyone who would not enjoy this spirited, candy-coated classic.
Sense and Sensibility is playing through April 30th at Austin Playhouse. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit AustinPlayhouse.com.