By Eric Uhlfelder
There’s rarely anything sacred in Bedlam Productions. Director Eric Tucker has taken theatre away from its traditional focus on dialogue and stage, filtering scripts through his most unusual cerebral synapses, to produce mindbending productions of classics, which have included Saint Joan, The Seagull, and Hamlet.
Whether it’s a cast of four playing 23 characters or having his actors change physical place with the audience, Tucker’s modus operandi is to suspend reality, deftly replacing it with his own. Above all, whether in dealing with tragedies or dramas, he makes theatre immensely more involving and entertaining for the playgoer who’s lucky enough to secure a seat in his small venues.
Currently, he has set his sights on Jane Austen and her attention to human foibles and relationships. In transcribing Sense and Sensibility for the stage [adapted by one of the play’s leading actors, Kate Hamill, mindful that all who appear on stage are leading actors], it’s impossible to distinguish between this inventive production and the story itself.
So seamlessly intertwined are the two that in spite of his minimal, cost-conscience staging, Tucker literally spins his characters across Judson Church’s theatre-in-the-rectangle stage that enables the show to take flight.
He constantly invites the audience’s imagination right into the middle of things. Take his dining room scenes: Characters seated in caster chairs around a large invisible table refuse to stay put and physically pin ball themselves against one another [just like the dialogue]. And then in a moment’s notice, the scene dissolves into something completely different with the simple flick of the choreographer’s switch, conceived with football play-like precision by Alexandra Beller. [I wouldn’t be surprised if she drew up charts of Xs and Os in figuring out how each scene unfolds.]
But credit Tucker for the overall cacophony. To him, life is inherently messy, and if they aren’t moveable with a light prompt, physical props just get in the way. The director also loves screwball comedy, something I’d imagine Ms. Austen probably hadn’t envisioned when she wrote this early 19th-century tale of class and heartbreak. Such nonsense not only serves the audience’s pleasure, but shrewdly acts as foil to execute brisk shifts between the serious and silly.
Stephan Wolfert plays quite the believable horse, sans costume, but with hair turned just so as to suggest compelling forelocks. He is treated with just the right amount of affection [and food] by his mount, Jason O’Connell, as to conjure some of the more playful scenes from War Horse.
With Carole Lombard-like abandon, Kate Hamill’s young maiden issues forth a cry—in response to her heart’s betrayal—executed at such pitch as to likely send certain breeds of dogs, if within earshot, to respond in kind.
Then there are the inane whisperings of actors that turn into chorus as they voyeuristically observe the telling of intimate stories.
Despite the prevailing silliness, the play explores a full range of emotions, none executed with more passion than by Andrus Nichols. Co-producer and co-founder of Bedlam, Nichols is the older sister standing aside to most of the follies and delivers one of the show’s most poignant lines: “I have suffered all of the punishments of extreme attachment without enjoying any of its advantages.”
Only in the afterglow of the production, with perhaps a review taking shape in mind, might one realize the director’s heavy hand in these matters. But Tucker’s legerdemain makes us feel as if this delightfully absurd presentation was the only possible way this tale could be served up.
Sense and Sensibility restarts on June 17th in New York’s Judson Church [in the Gym] on Washington Square and will be performed through October 2nd.