A popular Bruno Mars song (hint: it’s not “Gorilla”) plays over the curtain call for Sense and Sensibility at the Guthrie Theater. That could feel cheesy or contrived, but it works because the production brings Jane Austen’s 18th-century characters so brightly to life that when a 21st-century song comes on, it feels like the Dashwood sisters are reaching across the centuries for a high five.
Director Sarah Rasmussen previously presented Kate Hamill’s new Sense and Sensibility adaptation at the Dallas Theater Center. Joseph Haj asked Rasmussen — who now heads the Jungle Theater — to bring the play to the Guthrie to open this, the first mainstage season fully curated by Haj as artistic director. This highly enjoyable production showcases the sure instincts of these two new local leaders, who don’t reinvent the wheel but give it a much-needed realignment.
The “sense” and “sensibility” of the title are represented, respectively, by Elinor (Jolly Abraham) and Marianne (Alejandra Escalante) Dashwood, two sisters who find themselves unwed and un-moneyed. Suitors come knocking, including the humble Edward (John Catron), the rascally Willoughby (Torsten Johnson), and the mature Colonel Brandon (Remy Auberjonois). Complications ensue.
Playwright Hamill embraces Austen’s ambiguity. This isn’t a play about heroes and villains; it’s about imperfect human beings painfully bound by social strictures. Hamill rightly highlights the women’s agency and acuity, but the male characters are also sympathetic and complex. The script puts a fine point, for example, on Marianne’s defense of Willoughby, a character who could easily be demonized.
Abraham and Escalante have a nice sisterly rapport, though between the two, Abraham makes the stronger impression. Catron, very funny as always, is well-cast as Elinor’s reticent love interest; their endearing fumbling in a scene involving a long table and an inkwell helps to set the show’s warm tone.
There’s a lot of plot to get across, and a bevy of black-clad gossips help to remind us where things stand. They’re played by a flexible supporting cast that includes the invaluable Sally Wingert and Robert Dorfman. Emily Gunyou Halaas and a hilarious Aeysha Kinnunen play a pair of sisters who are the Dashwoods’ best frenemies. (So many Sense and Sensibility actors are familiar faces from A Christmas Carol that you almost expect someone to plop down at the fortepiano and start pounding out “Good King Wenceslas.”)
Scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee has installed two concentric turntables on the Wurtele Thrust Stage, and Rasmussen has a lot of fun with them: putting dinner gatherings a-spin, sending characters for circular strolls, staging kaleidoscopic dance parties. Props are relatively few, and the production relies heavily on pantomime and suggestion. It’s heartening to see how warmly a Guthrie audience can embrace a chair and loveseat being converted to horse and carriage.
Intelligent, amusing, and presented by people who manifestly love what they’re doing, this Sense brings a fresh sensibility to a 200-year-old story. It’s a great show, and further evidence of the welcome winds of change blowing through our riverside theater tower.
IF YOU GO:
Sense and Sensibility
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
1-877-44-STAGE; Through October 29