"Sense and Sensibility" begins, appropriately enough, with an explosion of gossip: Poor Mr. Dashwood is barely dead (his body is briefly, unceremoniously, rolled onto stage) and already tongues are wagging: This can't be good news for his widow and daughters, left with a meager inheritance and few options in a class-obsessed England.
In Oregon State University's production of the Jane Austen novel, almost everyone's a gossip: Various cast members take turns serving as sort of a Greek chorus to push the plot along and share scandalous news. If director Elizabeth Helman had decided to give the show a contemporary update (she has not, by the way), it would have been easy to imagine all those gossips spending their time posting to social media instead of lurking behind windows and sharing the latest outrage with their neighbors.
"Society in the 18th century was so controlled by scandal and gossip," Helman said, and one theme in "Sense and Sensibility" is "how easy it is to ruin someone's reputation." It's a theme that resonates today, and that's part of the reason why Austen's 18th-century tales feel so fresh today.
OSU's production of "Sense and Sensibility," with a brisk and fast-paced adaptation by Kate Hamill, opens Thursday, May 9 for a two-weekend run at the Withycombe Main Stage Theatre. (See the related story for details such as curtain times and ticket prices.)
Helman saw the Hamill adaptation of the novel at a recent production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and thought the show might be a good capstone for an OSU Theatre season built around works of literature.
But she also thought she explore some aspects of the Hamill play that weren't emphasized in the Ashland production: "I saw a lot of opportunity to lean into the broad comedy" of the show.
"Sense and Sensibility," of course, revolves around two of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor (Lindsey Esch) and Marianne (Alessandra Ferriso), and those characters serve in some respect as our windows into the rigid structure of English society in the 1790s.
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But the characters surrounding Elinor and Marianne are "much more broadly comic," and Helman has worked to highlight those comic notes.
Hamill's adaptation has presented other challenges to Helman and her cast and crew: Mostly notably, the adaptation is remarkably fast-paced, including some 44 scenes in a show that clocks in at just under two hours, not including intermission: "The show never stops," she said. "It moves and moves from the get-go."
So Helman and her charges have spent considerable time working out the transitions from scene to scene, so that the pace never flags. (Projections that keep the audience informed of the various locations as the play progresses are helpful as well.)
Even with the brisk pace, though, the heart of Jane Austen shines through: She has "such a keen sense of how people interact with other," Helman said, and was a sharp-eyed observer of human behavior — and even if we share gossip through technological marvels today, our essential behavior hasn't changed that much.
Another key to Austen comes through in this adaptation: the affection she felt for so many of her characters. In "Sense and Sensibility," Helman said, "the real love story is with the two sisters," Elinor and Marianne. "So much about it is about their relationship."
And it makes for a suitable finale for the OSU Theatre season. "It's been a lot of fun," Helman said. "This is a nice show to end the season. It's very sweet and it's very funny."