The works of Jane Austen have long been fertile targets for pillage and parody. Look no further than “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” “Clueless” (the charming 1995 update of “Emma”), “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters,” and don’t even get me started on the Filthy Classics book series’ “Pride & Penetration.”
And now comes Bedlam’s mildly deranged staging of “Sense & Sensibility,” which, under the go-for-broke direction of Eric Tucker, manages to deconstruct and send up the 1811 classic tale of romantic entanglements. Playwright Kate Hamill, who also plays the role of the not-so-sensible Marianne Dashwood, has managed to condense the rangy, 400-page novel into a hugely entertaining two hours and 15 minutes.
If the plot about the Dashwood daughters’ breathless machinations to find the perfect match remains largely intact, it’s the delivery that’s truly remarkable. This incarnation, first seen in a limited, sold-out Off Off Broadway run in 2014, is geared towards today’s ADD-addled audiences unwilling to sit through a stuffy period piece. Or anybody who wants a jolly good theatrical romp.
Beloved classic tales get surprising and sublime makeovers
The madcap revamp has found a comfy home in the quirky Off Broadway Gym at Judson. Staged in the round, the polished concrete floor is perfect for the chairs, tables, doorframes, and trellises that constantly whizz around on casters, trying to keep apace with the brisk action. Cast members interact with the audience, evoking a sense of intimacy, even collaboration.
The fun starts from the get-go, when the exuberant ensemble of 10 strip off their contemporary clothes to reveal period garb, all while doing a lively dance that begins to look like a late 18th-century English quadrille. The proceedings are punctuated by a chorus of hissing and clucking gossips, magnifying the importance — and absurdity — of the era’s judgment-heavy social strictures.
When confidences are exchanged at the dinner table, the attendant snoops don’t simply listen in politely, they all roll their chairs right up and surround the innocent parties like a pack of hungry wolves.
The Bedlam members are masters of ingenuity and economy. No budget for a horse and carriage? No problem, they simply create one using the actors’ nimble bodies. Need to portray the Dashwoods out for a stroll? Simply have them march in place, then direct other actors holding tree branches to saunter by (or whizz by, depending on the urgency). One of the show’s many comic highlights is Stephan Wolfert’s uncanny portrayal of a restive horse, without any prop or hint of a costume.
It’s hard to imagine a more dexterous cast to pull off such antics. Special mention goes to Jason O’Connell, who plays dual roles as Elinor Dashwood’s attentive yet “soft-hearted” suitor, Edward Ferrars, and his rowdy, boozy younger brother, Robert. Laura Baranik is a hoot as the vindictive Fanny Ferrars Dashwood, who can’t kick her relations out of their former estate fast enough (she also plays the coy, crafty Lucy Steele, who competes with Elinor for Edward’s hand).
Not that it’s all mirth and frivolity. The titular underlying theme, the curious schism between head (personified by the sensible Elinor, played with understated grace by Andrus Nichols) and heart (personified by the passionate Marianne) comes through loud and clear. As do issues of untimely death, matrimony, real estate, income, respectability, social status, and stigma. There are many heart-rending moments, and they land hard.
As with all spoofs — and this one deeply respects its subject — familiarity with the source material makes the experience even richer. If you are not inclined to read the novel, do yourself a favor and watch the 1995 Ang Lee film starring Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson, and Hugh Grant. Then make haste downtown to the Gym at Judson, before this irresistible “Sense & Sensibility” sells out yet again.
Another well-worn tale, “Snow White,” has been stretched to even greater extremes, in an “adults-only” version. The latest burlesque spectacle of flesh and flash from Company XIV (“Nutcracker Rouge,” “Cinderella”) is a delirious fever dream mashup of styles and genres. Are we at a Weimar cabaret, the Folies Bergère, the Court of Louis XIV, Cirque du Soleil, or the Black Party? Designed to amaze and titillate, it may be the company’s most ambitious, captivating show to date.
Company XIV has wisely ignored the beloved Disney movie and drawn from the much darker German version in Grimms’ Fairy Tales. You know, the one where the maniacal Queen tries to bump off the innocent beautiful princess not just via a poisoned apple, but also a knife-wielding hunter, a strangulating corset, and a deadly comb, only to find herself at the mercy of red-hot coals.
If you saw the set list you would think that Austin McCormick, who conceived, choreographed, and directed this daring enterprise, is out of his mind. But somehow the mishmash of classical (Schubert, of course), opera, chanson, flamenco, folk, and pop (the most recognizable being Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” perfect for the poison comb routine) blends together to form a surprisingly cogent if not exactly seamless whole.
Zane Pihlstrom’s costumes are a dazzling, decadent mélange of heeled shoes, corsets, codpieces, bustiers, pasties, fishnets, feathers, leather, brocade, lace, and glitter, strategically revealing maximum skin and blurring gender lines. His set is equally fabulous, juxtaposing crystal chandeliers, frilly curtains, and a cute little puppet stage.
From time to time, one of the Queen’s cohorts breaks out a camcorder, projecting the action on a string curtain. This dual perspective intensifies the exhibitionistic quality even further. The fact that the occasional narration is provided in German, with just bits of English, proves just how gutsy this piece really is. Mood, sensuality, and artistry purposefully trump plot.
Propping up the shaky narrative structure is a solid, recurring motif of the evil Queen demanding that her mirror reveal “Who’s the fairest of us all?” The mirror’s answer and the Queen’s respondent rage, though familiar, never fail to elicit spine shivers every time.
The performances are all first-rate, with the spirited, lithe dancers and aerialists in fine form. Primary vocalist Marcy Richardson is superb. The uber-talented Hilly Bodin makes for a most unconventional Snow White, with her muscular, stocky physique and military crew cut. As the Queen, Laura Careless possesses a delicious, malevolent quality that avoids shrillness. She’s so stirring I found myself feeling pangs of empathy toward her instead of her pretty victim.
The seven dwarves are conspicuously absent, relegated to brief cardboard turns on the puppet stage. This erotically indulgent, intensely theatrical enterprise is too busy evoking vices like envy, greed, pride, and wrath. Perhaps a better title might be “Snow White & the Seven Deadly Sins.”
SENSE & SENSIBILITY | Bedlam | The Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson St.. btwn. Washington Sq. S. & W. Third St. |Through Mar. 6: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. | $69-$89 at bedlam.org | Two hrs., 15 mins., with intermission
SNOW WHITE | Company XIV | Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, btwn. Macdougal St. & Sixth Ave. | Through Mar. 12: Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 5 p.m. | $40-$105 at CompanyXIV.com | Two hrs., with intermission