John Willoughby (Jacob Fishel and Marianne Dashwood (Erin Weaver) on a horse carriage ride in Folger Theatre’s ‘Sense & Sensibility’. Photo by Teresa Wood. Also pictured, l to r: Michael Glenn, Lisa Birnbaum, Caroline Stephanie Clay, Nicole Kang, Jamie Smithson.
By DCist contributor Lauren Landau
Folger Theatre’s production of Sense & Sensibility comes at you fast. Aside from bright panels that create a permanent backdrop of the English countryside, the scenery is constantly changing.
It’s like that Old Spice ad where the confident, shirtless guy focuses on one random object after another: oysters, tickets, diamonds, and finally soap. In this spirited Austen adaptation, transitions happen so quickly and seamlessly that characters suddenly find themselves in a different home, or transformed into an animal, or a lamp. Director Eric Tucker’s high-energy pacing keeps the play moving at a clip audiences might not expect from a story that features polite tea and long walks through the English countryside.
It’s not that the set and props are sparse. They’re not. But rather than clutter the stage or slow down the show while stage hands fuss with furniture, the creative team chose to be inventive with what they’ve got.
Why haul a bed onto the stage when a simple sheet, stretched across a standing actor’s chest by his cast mates, will do? The audience gets it: it’s a bed; he’s in it, and although that moment doesn’t have to be funny, it is.
As Erin Weaver, who plays Marianne Dashwood, tells DCist, “it’s all hands on deck.” Rather than wait for their scene in the wings or green room, actors are typically on stage, rearranging set pieces or playing minor roles—including those of animals and objects.
Tucker, who first staged Hamill’s adaptation of Sense & Sensibility in New York in 2014, and then again earlier this year, says the choice is a practical one. “The play moves very quickly from one location to another. You might be in a scene that’s morning in the drawing room and six lines later it’s that night in the dining room and then it’s the next day a few lines later in the park or in someone else’s garden,” he says. “There’s a lot of ground to cover.”
“It’s a play that is not trying to do what a novel would do,” Tucker says. “If you want the novel, you read the novel. [Playwright Kate Hamill is] faithful to the story, while not necessary always being faithful to the novel and the form of a novel.”
It’s a production rife with what Weaver calls “zany, creative energy.” The D.C. favorite and regular on the Folger stage says while people might associate Jane Austen with romance, etiquette, and suppressed feelings, she also has a biting sense of humor and a dark side that this production sheds light on.
“I think that there’s so much more in the book that the general public doesn’t always talk about,” Weaver says.
Tucker also notes the timelessness of her work. “What’s wonderful about Austen is it constantly resonates because it’s about relationships and love.”
And while gossip gets old, sharing it never does. Whispering neighbors, friends, and family members drive the narrative forward. Anxieties flare and drama intensifies as private matters become public fodder for speculation, judgment, and entertainment
“The way [Austen] wrote is how we still are,” Tucker says. “Nothing much has changed. We dress different and don’t speak the same way, but her stories work today because relationships are the same.”
Ms. Lucy Steele (Kathryn Tkel, right) confides in her new acquaintance, Elinor Dashwood (Maggie McDowell). Photo by Teresa Wood. (also pictured: Jacob Fishel and Nicole Kang.)
During the show’s 15-minute intermission, members of the audience can check out the Folger Shakespeare Library exhibit Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity.
It includes adaptations of Austen’s work for stage and screen, plus fan fiction and parodies such as the 2009 novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith. But Curator Janine Barchas says the exhibit isn’t just about adaptations. “It is about collecting, about souvenir making, about the relics these authors leave behind, so it’s about their literary afterlives and not just about the other literary works that fans make in their wake.”
Curator Kristina Straub says, “It’s about fan culture and the ways in which fans make Shakespeare often a celebrity and how other authors have participated in that process.”
Visitors can delight in seeing Shakespeare as a bobble-head figure or Austen and her characters rendered in porcelain. They can read a grave rubbing of the inscription on Austen’s tomb, admire a lock of Austen’s hair, and try not to fan girl too hard over “the shirt” that Colin Firth wore—as did many subsequent “Mr. Darcys”—swimming in a pond in the BBC’s 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice.
“I can’t tell you how many times we have seen people, especially young women, genuflect, bow, swoon, take selfies with the shirt,” Straub says. “It’s a kind of object that really asks fans to perform the wonder of Jane Austen.”
She says that item and others like it make Will & Jane the “perfect exhibit for people who love theater, for people who love watching performances.” She says the exhibit documents the theatricality of authorship through which both star authors and their fans perform.
“We think that the exhibit is something that will not only give the visitor at intermission some things to think about in terms of how celebrity culture works and how important it is to the world we live in today,” Straub says, adding that the hope it to provide an opportunity for museumgoers to have fun. “Serious reflection and having fun are not mutually exclusive.”
Paired together, the exhibit and play make for a great night out. Sense & Sensibility is funny. It’s fast. It’s got a talented cast, and they’re all clearly having a ball. Jane Austen fans and casual theatergoers will too.
The exhibit Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity is on view at the Folger Library through November 6. Sense & Sensibility is at the Folger Theatre through October 30. Buy tickets here.