CAMBRIDGE — Oh, dear reader, Jane Austen is alive and well and rolling on casters at the American Repertory Theater. Playwright Kate Hamill’s “Bedlam’s Sense and Sensibility” is a high-energy, inventively staged production from the New York theater troupe that never stops moving and breathes life into Austen’s critique of the morals and ethics of the late-18th-century English gentry. While it is scrupulously true to the plot of the novel, Hamill’s adaptation and Eric Tucker’s direction make this very much a story for our time. It brings the gossips of the tale front and center, unveiling how they revel in other people’s misery, could care less if they ruin lives, and run amok with juicy details.
It opens with the cast in modern dress, moving in and out of the audience. They start dancing in a decidedly 21st-century style, all shoulder shimmies and hip gyrations, and then slowly change to lovely frocks and tailored suits and begin a period dance. We then meet the characters at the heart of the novel. The Dashwood sisters — stoic Elinor, rash Marianne, and innocent Margaret — are in dire straits after the death of their father, whose estate went to his son from his first marriage. Yeah, that. Women were disinherited. They and their mother are embraced by a kindly widow who welcomes them into a cottage on her estate, and that’s where the sisters Elinor and Marianne meet men who will dazzle them, bemuse them, and betray them.
There are villains and heroes here, strong women and less-than-nice women. Ten actors play all the roles, some doubling up. And they all play members of the chorus of gossips, who roll around on chairs and chatter to each other and to the audience about the goings-on among the various characters. This chorus of chatters is central to the piece, underscoring how busybodies create the core of a society driven by rules that undermine women.
John McDermott’s set is like a character in the play. All the set pieces are on wheels and roll around, including trellises, windows, doors, and divans. There are tongue-in-cheek elements to the staging: Spray bottles are used to create rain. A horse, a la Monty Python, is portrayed by an actor clopping two pieces of wood together. The actors create a soundscape of birds singing and dogs barking.
The ensemble, without a fault, brings everything they have to the piece. The actors who double up show an amazing range. Lisa Birnbaum is calm and cool as the mother Mrs. Dashwood, but she is hilariously ditzy as a young girl who visits the family. Jamie Smithson does a remarkable turn as the reserved suitor Edward Ferrars and his over-the-top inebriated brother Robert. He manages a number of variations on the word cottage, which Jane-ites know is a great piece of writing. Jessica Frey, Maggie Adams McDowell, and Violeta Picayo give life to the three Dashwood sisters.
The play, which is overlong at more than 2½ hours, captures the spirit of Austen’s work in a new way. There are creepy bits that resonate now, given the long overdue attention to sexual harassment. The character of Willoughby (Benjamin Russell) has some accounting to do. Austen knew what was going on. If she were alive today, she would be our seer, exposing our society’s foils on a viral blog.
There are two decent men in this tale and several women with strong values and stiff backbones. One of the good guys says, “You will find me a very awkward narrator.” In the end, he is not an awkward narrator. He is a supporter of women. Austen knew what she was doing, way back when. Her work wasn’t just about twee social morals. It was about a culture that harassed and inhibited women. But the women win in the end by staying true to themselves.
BEDLAM’S SENSE & SENSIBILITY
By Kate Hamill. Based on the novel by Jane Austen. Directed by Eric Tucker. Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through Jan. 14. Tickets from $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Patti Hartigan can be reached at email@example.com.