It certainly occurred to Erin Weaver and her cast mates in “Sense and Sensibility,” the autumn runaway hit at Folger Theatre, that a stage adaptation of a popular Jane Austen novel would be humorous. But hazardous?
“I told myself, ‘You can’t mess up!’ ” says Weaver, who plays the younger Dashwood sister, Marianne, in Austen’s genteel story of the heartbreak and elation of 19th Century courtship. At one point in this agile production — in which all of the myriad set pieces are mounted on wheels and passed briskly from actor to actor, often with other actors perched atop them — Weaver has to be positioned perfectly to grab chairs propelled toward her downstage. If she blows the cue, the scary possibility exists that those chairs would fly off the lip of the stage and into the laps of the paying customers.
“Two chairs are passed to me, and if I miss them …,” she says, of the unthinkable. “They come at you really quickly. My acting may fall apart, but I have to catch those chairs!”
One of the marvelous aspects of director Eric Tucker’s production — a re-jiggering of his original Bedlam theater company staging in New York, where it has run off-Broadway for the better part of a year — is that he turns what most people imagine to be a story of a decidedly literary bent into one in which physicality matters as much as words. The 10 actors of “Sense and Sensibility,” many of them doubling in important roles to fill out the canvas of Austen’s piquant tale, have to be an extraordinarily well-drilled team. If in any good production the ensemble members are reliably there for each other at every moment, this one, the actors say, requires a magnitude of commitment and concentration that make past shows seem by comparison as if they were loosely organized larks.
“Literally everything is on wheels,” says Jacob Fishel, who plays the duplicitous seducer John Willoughby. In rehearsals of the elaborate dinner scenes, he recalls, Tucker could not get the configuration of the furniture to work. “We went through 30 or 40 different arrangements of the tables. Maybe 20 of them were okay, but they weren’t great. So we kept cycling through. Eric’s one of those clowns who’s not satisfied with one spinning plate. One day he’s got one of them spinning, and the next day he’s spinning 12 of them.”
This entertainingly mobile “Sense and Sensibility” emerged from the laptop of a young New York actress, Kate Hamill, who, tiring of the narrow category of roles she seemed to be considered for, dove seriously into the task of writing better ones. (She in fact plays Marianne in the New York production, which has to end its run at the Gym at Judson in Greenwich Village on Nov. 20.) Growing up in a small town in upstate New York, where “there was nothing to do except sit around and read big novels,” Hamill fell in love with Austen, and in conversation with Tucker and his partner in Bedlam, Andrus Nichols, talked about a stage adaptation.
Bedlam, founded about four years ago, has staged widely praised, bare-bones versions of such classics as Chekhov’s “The Seagull” and George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan,” but “Sense and Sensibility,” in development over much of Bedlam’s existence, has been its biggest success. Janet Griffin, Folger’s artistic producer, caught it in an earlier run at another, smaller theater in downtown Manhattan, and engaged Tucker to create a new production in her space in the Folger Shakespeare Library on East Capitol Street.
Figuring out how to make his brainchild work on Folger’s proscenium stage proved a lot trickier than he’d anticipated, Tucker says. The performance space in the Gym at Judson is set up as an alley, with audience members seated on each side. The more traditional Folger arrangement required a wholesale rethinking of the piece, which Tucker had to accomplish on his feet.
“At the first rehearsal, I said: ‘By the time we get to “tech-ing” the location of the chairs, I will make you crazy and you’re all going to hate me,” the director recalls.
The exasperation never rose to quite that level. Still, a 2-hour, 40-minute play with a cascade of short scenes and accompanying, challenging stage directions does invite a certain amount of grumbling — and mishap. “Every single cast member has gotten hurt,” Weaver reports. “It’s kind of a rite of passage.”
One consolation in this whirlwind pacing, it seems, is that a performance could be shaped by an actor having to frame a response to the exertions of the rest of the cast. Maggie McDowell, who plays the long-suffering elder sister, Elinor Dashwood, says that she didn’t need to create an illusion of dizziness at one point in the evening, because she is literally spun by the other actors. The actors who simulate a raging storm make it easy for her, she says, to convey Elinor’s distress. “It feels chaotic and stressful, when some of the ensemble are onstage and they’re moving pieces around.”
“It’s a world in constant motion,” avers Caroline Stefanie Clay, who portrays the good-hearted busybody, Mrs. Jennings. Even the transitions between scenes pulsate: Hamill came up with a steady background noise for these sequences: the incessant buzz of the chattering classes, picking up and spreading tidbits of gossip.
“This is a show where you must be present,” Clay observes. “It’s literally a fever dream of motion that Eric has created — it’s almost hallucinatory. I’m so excited to see where Eric’s vision is going to take him next.”
For the moment, she’ll leave the vision thing to the director. Her mind is too consumed right now with navigating all those flying chairs and sofas and tables. “If you start daydreaming,” she explains, “you might roll right off the stage.”
Sense and Sensibility, adapted by Kate Hamill from the novel by Jane Austen. Directed by Eric Tucker. Tickets, $25-$95. Extended through Nov. 13. Visit folger.edu/theatre or call 202-544-7077.