I have a confession to make: I don’t like Jane Austen.
Her comedies of manners and tales of the British upper class worrying they might become slightly less “upper” have never spoken to me. I was only ever able to complete “Pride and Prejudice” through the addition of zombies. My favorite adaptation of one of her novels is “Clueless.” I am, to be sure, not a fan.
Yet I highly enjoyed Austin Playhouse’s new production of “Sense and Sensibility,” adapted from Austen’s novel by Kate Hamill and directed by the theater company’s artistic director, Lara Toner Haddock. Hamill takes Austen’s plot and language but infuses them with a modern flair that focuses on the text’s proto-feminist elements and brings in a massive heaping of good-natured goofiness.
This version of “Sense and Sensibility” is silly, no doubt, and filled with bouncy energy. Designer Mike Toner’s set consists of a few simple pieces on wheels (chairs, tables, doorways and windows) that move about and reconfigure to set each scene. Complemented by the vibrant slashes of bold colors in designer Buffy Manners’ costumes and the classical covers of female-driven pop music that dominate Joel Mercado-See’s sound design, this constant metamorphosis of the stage moves the story along even during the stuffiest of scenes.
Fortunately, that stuffiness does not dominate the production in the least. Haddock accentuates the goofiness of Hamill’s text with broad, occasionally slapstick performances that wink to the audience in recognition of some of Austen’s more outdated conventions. “Sense and Sensibility” thus becomes a thoroughly modern Austen, with comedic appeal even to those who don’t care for the novelist’s creations.
Wisely, the production doesn’t rely completely on humor and instead finds important moments of pathos, particularly in the second act. This mostly comes out of the text’s most important relationship — the bonds of sisterhood and friendship between Elinor and Marianne. Their affection for one another, and unwavering support, is the true love story at the heart of this version of “Sense and Sensibility,” thanks in no small part to the prodigious talents, both comedic and sentimental, of the show’s lead actresses, Jess Hughes (as Elinor) and Marie Fahlgren (as Marianne).
The momentum of “Sense and Sensibility,” though, relies on a wide-ranging supporting cast of Austin Playhouse all-stars, all of whom take on multiple roles from scene to scene. Standouts include the impeccable comedic timing of Joey Banks, the boundless energy of Katie Kohler and the transformative physicality of Lara Wright (who is called upon to portray multiple characters within the same scene).
Austin Playhouse’s “Sense and Sensibility” may not be the most traditional of adaptations, but it is quite fun, even if you’re not an ardent Janeite.
“Sense and Sensibility”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through April 30
Where: Austin Playhouse, 6001 Airport Blvd.