Thank goodness the dark days of marrying for money are well behind us. Wait, what? Oh right: From pre-nups to paternity suits, the financial stakes of courtship inarguably persist. Back in the 19th century, Jane Austen slyly sized this up in her 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility. In this work, that bottom line crosses both genders, as evidenced by frequent mentions of dowries and estate holdings.
The age-old mercenary marriage is grist for jolly good fun in Sense & Sensibility, Kate Hamill’s inventive, antic stage adaption of the novel. This sharply spun whirlwind of a work bursts out of Threshold Repertory Theatre’s black box with unbridled zeal, rife with humor, and choice ribbing at the ever-tenuous state of the romantic union.
Hamill’s work first had a go at New York City’s Bedlam, the upstart theater company that has in the past five or so years staged a slew of revisited classic works, from Shaw to Shakespeare. Bedlam originally trotted out Sense & Sensibility in 2014, then reworked and remounted it in 2016 to much critical ado.
Austen’s story is this: Edged out of their inheritance, the Dashwood sisters find their fates altogether wrapped up in their marital prospects. The two eldest sisters, however, have wildly divergent philosophies on interpersonal relationships, a duality neatly summed up in the words sense and sensibility. Sense, or reason, is manifest in Elinor, an altogether logical and proper proposition of a young woman. Conversely, the effusive Marianne passionately embraces sensibility, which in Austen’s time translates into all that feely stuff.
In this work, telling Austen’s story is a considerable undertaking, requiring director Andrea Catangay to shepherd 10 actors through 30 characters. To do so, they don wigs and pull faces, switching roles from high society to hand servant, from grand dame to village gossip. Threshold’s footing is largely solid in this ambitious effort, give or take some opening night stalls and creaks that will likely resolve themselves into the run. Regardless, the spirit and muscle required for this full-length production are firmly in place.
With its flurry of onstage activity, all cast members must come packing stamina. As the levelheaded, quietly longing Elinor, Carri Schwab brings both sound mind and palpable heart to the role, succeeding in delivering a moral center to the production. As her besotted sister Marianne, Katte Noel is fetching and fittingly fired up by notions of unchecked romance, spouting Shakespeare and whatnot.
As their love interests (who also play other roles), William Griffin is a delectably caddish John Willoughby; Aaron Andrews a diffident, conscientious Edward Ferrars; and Paul O’Brien a sympathetically smitten Colonel Brandon. As Mrs. Jennings, Jimmy Flannery offers a supreme send up of the country matron; Bailey Gaines is a plucky younger sister, Margaret.
These performances are propelled along by a wide-ranging ensemble that is game for just about anything, scurrying on and off stage for expository bits, strains of song and general tomfoolery. The stylistic approaches do vary from one performer to the next, with some playing it straight and others mega-mugging (including one cast member doing so to the point of distraction). Throughout, Madelyn’s Knight’s exquisite voice serves as soulful scene transition.
It’s no small feat, this show, with its character juggling and plot advancing, its shifting set pieces and costume switching. Catangay’s efficient, serviceable set, as realized by Charles McHugh, helps power it along. A two-toned back panel splices a cool, ever-so-reasonable gray with sparkling white, thereby pointing up the schism at the heart of the work. Wheeled panels revolve with the scenes, part of the near-constant movement accounting for the production’s amiable charge.
And, as the play soldiers onto resolution in the second act, the show can lag. After all, you are ingesting the whole of an Austen novel in a little over two hours, with its mother load of nuanced, canny observations on the savage scrum that is the upper class. What’s remarkable is how fraught our fix on marriage is — and how society still squirms nervously against its pragmatics, disavowing gold-diggers of either gender from the comfort of mini mansions.
Case in point: This weekend at a children’s event, I hung with a klatch of mothers who happened to share stories on this very topic. They spoke of recent encounters with those claiming to have attended college for their “Mrs. Degree” — or others who had financially “married down.” I could almost feel Austen wryly smiling.
With this in mind, I’m all the more appreciative of Threshold’s commitment to presenting new work on that evergreen tap dance of love and money. At the risk of taking a page from Austen’s book, and like Marianne, wearing my own gushing heart on my sleeve, I encourage you all to partake of Threshold’s lively and timely labor of love. In doing so, you’ll not only be uplifted, but you’ll help ensure that challenging, inventive work finds a home here in Charleston.