Review: ‘Sense’ and ‘ability’ abound in USF’s Jane Austen adaptation

Sarah Greenman, left, as Lady Middleton, Bri Sudia, center, as Charlotte Palmer and Cassandra Bissell, right, as Elinor Dashwood in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of "Sense and Sensibility," Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Karl Hugh, copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2014, St. George News

REVIEW – If you’re heading to Cedar City’s Utah Shakespeare Festival this season, may I humbly beg that you add “Sense and Sensibility” to your viewing lineup? If you’re not a fan of Jane Austen, this play may just change your mind.

Cassandra Bissell, left, as Elinor Dashwood and Eva Balistrieri as Marianne Dashwood in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of "Sense and Sensibility," Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Karl Hugh, copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2014, St. George News
Cassandra Bissell, left, as Elinor Dashwood and Eva Balistrieri as Marianne Dashwood in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of “Sense and Sensibility,” Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Karl Hugh, copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2014, St. George News

Not finding a current stage adaptation of the Austen classic that satisfied them, the head honchos at the Utah Shakespeare Festival took matters into their own hands and commissioned a brand new “Sense and Sensibility” script to be written specifically for this year’s festival – and what a superb result!

I am an Austen fan, tried and true, thanks to my 10th grade English teacher, Susan Wiltsey, who first introduced me to the miracle of human study that is “Pride and Prejudice.” But you don’t have to be an Austen fan to appreciate this most excellent stage play the Utah Shakespeare Festival has given birth to. I only hope the script will not be kept solely in the USF vault but will be made available for other theaters to produce in the future – it deserves to be enjoyed far and wide.

A quick background for those (shame on you!) who aren’t familiar with “Sense and Sensibility” (a noteworthy film version features Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant and Kate Winslet – so, if nothing else, you should lay hands on the movie, if not the book).

The story begins with the death of Henry Dashwood, whose son from a first marriage, John, is set to inherit his father’s considerable estate of fancy things. This leaves wife No. 2 and her daughters with almost nothing to live on except a deathbed promise that John will be generous to them in the wake of his father’s passing. But John’s shrewish and shrewd-ish wife, Fanny, quickly convinces her dolt of a husband that his father didn’t really mean for him to give his stepmother and half-sisters such extravagant things as money to live on or a home to live in – perhaps just a modest present here and there, in moderation. So, ere long, the Dashwood women find themselves out on “their” fannies, and so begins the story.

Most Austen readers consider “Sense and Sensibility” to be Jane Austen’s second-greatest novel, after “Pride and Prejudice.” But there is nothing second-best about the Shakespeare Festival’s wonderful adaptation of the story. This play was excellent, entertaining and thoroughly humorous. You don’t necessarily sit down to Jane Austen expecting to roar with laughter – so what a nice surprise when this version had the audience rolling from Scene 1.

There is much to be praised about this production, so may I start with the hero of our play: Edward Ferrars, portrayed by Quinn Mattfeld. I can’t even begin to describe what a delight Mattfeld’s character is – due, in part, to the playwrights’ ingenuity in developing the character and, for the rest, to Mattfeld’s adorable charm and fantastic comic timing. Playwrights Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan took the character of Edward – reserved, shy, unfailingly good but not a whole lot else in Austen’s pages – to wonderful new heights. Edward of the stage adaptation is fantastically awkward – stumbling over his words, trailing off his sentences and verbally tripping himself up at every turn – much to the delight and adoration of the audience. He was positively brilliant and so endearingly funny!

Leading lady Elinor Dashwood, played by Cassandra Bissell, filled her part perfectly. She embodied the character of Elinor so well and was always in the moment with her performance and her reactions to the other characters. She was a living Elinor, and the part could not have been played better.

Truthfully, the acting was superb all the way around – even the more minor players were excellent. The production was professional, through and through, and the caliber of the performers, almost in total, was Broadway caliber in every way.

Quinn Mattfeld, left, as Edward Ferrars and Cassandra Bissell as Elinor Dashwood in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of "Sense and Sensibility," Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Karl Hugh, copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2014, St. George News
Quinn Mattfeld, left, as Edward Ferrars and Cassandra Bissell as Elinor Dashwood in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of “Sense and Sensibility,” Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Karl Hugh, copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2014, St. George News

A few of the standouts in the supporting cast, for me, were Larry Bull in the role of Sir John Middleton, the kindly man’s man who comes to the aid of the homeless Dashwood ladies; Kathleen Brady as the outlandish but lovable Mrs. Jennings; Nell Geisslinger as the love-to-hate-her interloper Fanny Dashwood; and Bri Sudia as the unfortunately foolish Charlotte Palmer, whose politically aspiring husband was duped into marrying her and, as a remedy, has taken to ignoring her ever since. Sudia is a guilty pleasure in the show – at once socially vulgar and clueless but hilarious and heart-touchingly vulnerable. She unexpectedly added a great deal of comic relief, and I loved her sweetly bumbling character.

There was just one minor complaint as the show commenced, and, thankfully, it was remedied in short order. The young Marianne Dashwood (the “sensibility” of the title, pitted against Elinor’s “sense”) led out the production, offering the first lines of dialogue in the show, and for one horrifying moment I thought, “Oh no, have we stumbled into a high school play?” In the first scene, Marianne’s dialogue rang out with the sloppy diction and one-dimensional delivery one would expect from an inexperienced teenage actress in a high school show. But, thankfully, this quickly smoothed out as the actress playing Marianne, Eva Balistrieri, settled into her performance; her diction became clearer and less shouted, and she quickly became likable as the naïve and idealistic Marianne. What threatened at first to bother ultimately proved to suit the character – after all, Marianne is a young, naïve teenage girl who is about to get her heart stomped on for being so. Once Balistrieri’s delivery smoothed out, her character became quite realistic – for, truly, how many young girls, thinking they have the world all figured out, have fallen prey to the heartbreak of loving a less-than-worthy man?

“Sense and Sensibility” demands to be seen. And don’t fear that it’s going to be highbrow or “girly” – my husband, who loves shoot-‘em-up movies and doesn’t know a Jane Austen from a Charlotte Bronte, enjoyed the show, which is fair proof to me that it’s universally likable. Entertainment is entertainment, and this show thoroughly entertains. If a DVD of this production were made available, I would be among the first to buy it, for I truly enjoyed it enough to watch it again and again.

To sum it up, “Sense and Sensibility” is a sheer delight, and the Utah Shakespeare Festival is to be praised for refusing to settle for a subpar adaptation of the story. As the old saying goes, if you want something done right, do it yourself – and they have certainly done something right with “Sense and Sensibility.”

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Email: cjim@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

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