Keep making sense: Sense and Sensibility at the Citadel, a review

Madison Walsh and Patrick Dodd in Sense and Sensibility, Citadel Theatre. photo by David Cooper

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the Citadel of an evening, you can overhear talk of annual incomes, real estate and mortgages, annuities and entailments, wills and estates, pre-nups. And, of course, renos. 

And no, gentle reader, it isn’t in the lobby. It’s coming from the stage.

Remarkably, it’s the hard-headed, essentially modern, comic brilliance and social savvy of Jane Austen’s first novel Sense and Sensibility, coming at us from the 1790s — and captured in a radiant, compulsively entertaining new adaptation by Tom Wood.

The quest to find true love is universal and evergreen; it’s  especially thorny in an age ruled by social accountants, a world of extravagant sleeves that hearts weren’t meant to be worn on. Austen knew it. Wood makes a heartfelt and funny romantic comedy of it. And the zestful theatricality of Bob Baker’s production sets it into urgent motion from the outset.

A very English idyll, a Sussez still-life in an elaborate golden frame, with a painterly sunset (lighting by Stencil Campbell), cut-out greenery and one pianoforte, is suddenly alive, and busy, and dimensional. Real plants arrive onstage, along with lamps, elegant windows, rolling furniture. Suddenly, there’s music (original, apt lilting tunes by Allan Gilliland), and people, people with pressing social and/or romantic goals.

Suddenly, we meet a mother with marriageable daughters, a go-for-the-gusto widow, an arriviste with a pliable ninny for a husband; we meet conniving fiancées, eligible cads, thuggish rich kids, bookish misfits. And, as per the title, two sisters, one restrained and measured, the other impulsive and histrionic. There’s a third sister, too, the youngest who doesn’t get to be in the title, but gets a charming comic role in Wood’s adaptation.

They’re the Misses Dashwoods. The eldest, Elinor (Madison Walsh) advises caution and discretion in dealing with the setbacks brought on by the death of their father, and dispossession by their weakling step-brother’s awful wife Fanny. “We must all live together.” It’s a social credo that will be sorely tried by a world that is hyper-alert to the minutiae of income.

Her sister Marianne (Julia Guy), the musician of the family (with a lovely Gilliland song to sing) places no such restrictions on behavior, but plunges directly and openly into the life of the passions.

Young Margaret (Emily Siobhan McCourt), who’s more Marianne than Elinor, is the family diarist, gleefully putting the details of their world into lurid novellas-in-progress and “theatricals” where bad people will meet gruesome ends. 

The design, by the great Leslie Frankish, sees into the heart of a production that’s all about changing the surfaces of a period landscape, both rustic and urban, into drama. Which counts as a witty visual thought about the page-to-stage provenance of the whole enterprise. And when you see Julien Arnold, in an ample brocade waistcoat, coming around a cut-out hedge to enter as the expansive country gentleman Sir John Middleton, in a marvellously exuberant 3-D comic performance, you’ll know exactly what I mean. 

Sense meets sensibility in Baker’s expert stagecraft: Re-decorating (and the servants to do it) is a way to chart the aspirational thrust of a society that is vigilante about every step in upward mobility. So is Frankish’s extravagantly amusing assortment of gowns and frock coats and millinery, mop-cap to  bonnet to full feathered, taffeta-trimmed extravaganza.

The director/designer Baker-Frankish partnership is one of the outstanding features of Baker’s 17-year artistic directorship at the Citadel, just ended. And this is a production that amply reveals its rewards.

Threading through Wood’s adaptation is the theme of portraiture. Elinor is a painter, and the notion of seeing beyond surface features into the hidden “essence” behind respectability, is a thought that ripples through Sense and Sensibility. “I could not live without my pencils and paint,” Elinor tells the diffident Edward Ferrars (Patrick Dodd), who admires her at her easel. “They enable me to sort things out.”

Things will, indeed, take some sorting out. The plot is all about the fortunes, social and romantic, of the penniless Dashwood girls as they take up a life of “reduced circumstance” in deepest Devonshire. Sir John, the country squire who befriends them, fears there’s a shortage of eligible men in the neighbourhood. Well, it may not be raining men. But suitors appear.

Julien Arnold, Robin Craig, Madison Walsh in Sense and Sensibility adapted by Tom Wood, Citadel Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

And so does Sir John’s companion Mrs. Jennings. A performance of perfectly-pitched hilarity and bustle from Robin Craig is, along with Arnold’s as Sir John, the comic centrepiece of the evening. She’s a peppy, “particularly gifted” expediter of marital arrangements, voluble, well-meaning, alert to every clue. “Are you married?” she asks brightly, by way of introducing herself to each Miss Dashwood. “No? We’ll certainly have to remedy that!”

As for the men, there’s Willoughby (Matt O’Connor), a young man for whom the term “dashing” was probably invented. Marianne abandons all caution and falls head over heels for his flashy charms. The onward momentum of Wood’s artfully streamlined adaptation falters only once, when it gives the longest speech of the evening, by far, to a remorseful Willoughby late in the evening, once everyone has lost interest in him.

There’s Edward, sweetly shy, unflashy and tongued-tied in Patrick Dodd’s performance. A magnet for awkwardness, he often seems to be held up by his boots. Elinor’s affection, challenged by machinations around her, continues steadfastly, in its undemonstrative way. She cautiously calls it “high esteem” instead of the flashier “love”.

In outer orbit from the intricacies of the plot is Edward’s braying and absurdly acquisitive brother Robert (Sanders).

And there’s the mysteriously gloomy Colonel Brandon (Stephen Gartner), whose advanced age of 35 diminishes his potential considerably in Marianne’s eyes. Thirty-five! she cries. “He must have long outlived every sensation of the (romantic) kind … it’s too ridiculous!”

Sense and Sensibility adapted by Tom Wood, Citadel Theatre. Photo by David Cooper

Most of Baker’s cast are participants in this year’s Citadel/Banff Professional Program. And the Elinor and Marianne of the production are wonderfully cast. To Madison Walsh as Elinor falls the assignment of conveying an intensity of feeling she will not permit herself to reveal. And this the actor does, in a performance of beautiful and expressive restraint. She’s matched by Julia Guy’s fresh, funny, heartbreaking performance as the volatile Marianne.

As their widowed mother, Belinda Cornish turns in a performance of agreeable maternal warmth and slightly addled cordiality, in a role that’s been sanded of some of the delicate comic contours it has in the novel. 

On the other hand there are performances where the full-blooded comic vigour of the production bursts through the the decorous surfaces of the 18th century altogether. Kristin Johnston’s as Fanny is one. In the performance, the villainously mean and avaricious wife of the feckless Mr. John Dashwood is heightened into a sort of cartoon grotesque. Her comic excesses are amusing but misjudged, inflated well beyond plausibility.

You find you care about the heroines; they’re up against it, and you want them to succeed. The storytelling of both the adaptation and Baker’s lavish and vigorous production share a kind of breathless but natural pace. It’s a seductive evening, propelled by “the promise of deeper possibilities” as Edward puts it. He’s talking about painting but he might be talking about theatre.

Sir John promises early on “there will be capering!” He’s spot on. 

REVIEW

Sense and Sensibility

Theatre: Citadel

Adapted by: Tom Wood from the Jane Austen novel

Directed by: Bob Baker

Starring: Madison Walsh, Julia Guy, Belinda Cornish, Julien Arnold, Robin Craig, Patrick Dodd, Stephen Gartner, Matt O’Connor

Running: through May 14

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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