Theater – Sense and Sensibility

Sense & Sensibility
Photo by Jesse Belsky

The Boy and I obviously love theater.  We wouldn’t have season tickets to the Shakespeare Theatre, and go out for other events as often as we do.  And one of our new goals is getting his daughters interested in it as well – or at least to a point where they can appreciate how terrific it can be.  But we have specific ideas about how it should be done.  As I mentioned when we went to see Othello last year, there are perhaps some shows which aren’t appropriate for children – or at least there are other shows that are less harsh and gritty as introductions to theater appreciation.  So when we saw that the Folger Theatre would be putting on Sense and Sensibility, we knew we had our show to take H to as her first big DC theater outing.

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Photo by Jesse Belsky

If you’ve read the novel by Jane Austen, you know the story, but for those who haven’t (and man – you are missing out!) here’s a quick summary.  Two sisters – Elinor and Marianne – are left penniless by their father’s death.  Over the course of the story, we see Elinor show too little emotion with the man that she loves, and Marianne show too much.  They chide each other for either their unfeelingness, or their gaudy displays of affection.  Things go very poorly before everything turns towards a happy ending for our protagonists.  It’s a lovely story with some good twists, and one I’d never expected as a theater production, but was actually terrific.

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Photo by Jesse Belsky

To begin with, the cast is quite small.  Smaller than you would expect.  And the stage is generally bare with little permanently fixed or standing in place.  This allows for both cast and stage to roll around in as many positions or parts as are necessary in the production.  A small sofa when positioned in front of a rolling stand of windows becomes one house, and then another.  Chairs can be moved from one place to another to give us different perspectives on characters, or if the chairs are slid across the stage with actors in them, can signal that the same actor is now playing a completely different role.  Three different actors (and possibly more – I wasn’t keeping close count) played Lady Middleton, all indicated by a tiara and mannerisms which were consistent from actor to actor.

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Photo by Jesse Belsky

Most impressive in these feats were Lisa Birnbaum and Kathryn Tkel, who each played at least three roles, and changed their mannerisms and tone of voice each time in such a way that despite wearing wholly the same garment and hairstyle that you could believe with the addition of a frilly collar or a pink velvet hair bow that these were entirely different women.  And even as they were the ones who were rolled across the stage on wheely chairs, you could see the transition and feel that it was entire and whole for the moments that they were in those characters.

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Photo by Jesse Belsky

Yes, the other actors were terrific.  When the cast is small as this one was, there is no room for a weak link.  Maggie McDowell as Elinor and Erin Weaver as Marianne (last seen as the acrobatic and nimble Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream on that same stage) were probably the only actors who never took on a second character, but they were no lesser for it.  Elinor and Marianne go through such emotional journeys over the course of the story, that putting those actors in secondary roles – even momentarily – would likely have distracted.  And they were terrific – completely doing justice to characters that I have loved for years and will continue to love for years.

This was definitely an ideal first theater experience for H, and it doesn’t hurt that we had a terrific time as well.

Details: Sense and Sensibility, playing through November 6 at the Folger Theatre.  In conjunction with an exhibit titled “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity“, which also runs through November 6.

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