In some ways, the two plays I saw last week in New York couldn’t be more different. One is a big, boisterous romantic comedy of English manners, the other a small, quiet meditation drawn from Hindu scripture.
Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility, now playing Off-Broadway (and just extended into November), is a nonstop, high-energy romp through the Jane Austen classic – “Downton Abbey on roller skates,” as one critic put it, which captures the feel if not the fact. It takes place a century earlier, and it’s the set and furniture that are on wheels, though you’d be forgiven for thinking the actors are on wings.
In contrast, the four actors in Battlefield move very slowly across the stage at the Brookyn Academy of Music, when they move at all. Battlefield is a brief extract from the Sanskrit epic of ancient India, The Mahabharata, adapted and directed by the great theatrical innovator Peter Brook and his longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne, based on Brook’s nine-hour Mahabharata from the 1980s. It’s essentially a series of dialogues that focus on the meaning and duties of life, and not incidentally, death.
The passage rendered here is set in the aftermath of the great war of dynastic succession between two clans, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The bloody clash of arms has ended with almost no survivors and the winners feeling that “victory is a defeat.” In effect, it’s a metaphor of the end of the world, from which a new world and a new order, in the endless cycle of death and rebirth, must be painfully regenerated.
The show, part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival, features an international, multiethnic cast – Carole Karemera, Jared McNeill, Ery Nzaramba and Sean O’Callaghan – and an onstage musician, drummer Toshi Tsuchitori. The stage is all but empty, with scattered clusters of long sticks perhaps denoting the piles of corpses, and the actors in basic black augmented by long swathes of colored fabric. The prevailing style is formal and solemn, often recalling the portentous style of Greek drama. Even expressions of grief over “the field of blood” are oddly dispassionate.
Three parables are injected into the text, exemplifying inescapable destiny, compassionate self-sacrifice and desperate hope. These prove the liveliest moments, perhaps because we are drawn more to stories than discourses. But Brook sees the piece less as drama than contemplation and conversation, reflecting on not only universal questions of life and death, but the present day’s life-and-death battlefields of politics and war.
Bedlam, the company led by wunderkind theatrical innovator Eric Tucker, is a newish ensemble “committed to the immediacy of the relationship between the actor and the audience.” The Gym at Judson, a bare-bones rectangle within Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square, affords just such a relationship.
Sense & Sensibility gets as many laughs from its blocking – no, let’s call it choreography, of both people and objects – as from Kate Hamill’s artful adaptation of Austen’s witty 1811 novel. On the long, bare runway of a stage, with the audience ranged along both sides, facing each other, chairs-on-wheels spin into place for dining scenes and tête-à- têtes, arbors strung with vines and flowers shelter garden trysts (and eavesdroppers) and a moving doorway ushers visitors in and out of invisible rooms. Along with their quick-change characters, the actors become teams of horses, bedside tables and parkland statuary.
This flash and dazzle is, well, dazzling, but most of it is in the interest of efficient storytelling – the story here being the one about the penniless Dashwood sisters, sensible Elinor and sensitive Marianne, who lose their hearts to a pair of apparent cads. It also gives Austen’s understated satire – on aristocratic snobbery, social-climbing pretensions, et al. – an energy boost, bringing the large cast of characters to comedic if sometimes almost cartoonish life.
While the stage is almost always in motion, there’s emotion aplenty as well. The actors bring both high spirits and real feeling to their roles – and most of them have more than one or two of those. In fact, a couple of minor characters are played by multiple actors in turn, without regard to race or gender.
Two faces will be familiar to Shakespeare & Company’s audiences. Kelley Curran, who plays levelheaded Elinor, was seen in last year’s Comedy of Errors and Red Velvet, and Stephan Wolfert, in several roles including the incessantly jovial Sir John Middleton, performed Cry Havoc!, his one-man meditation on Shakespeare and war, the past two seasons.
The actor/audience relationship is established at the outset, when the performers, in warm-up clothes, chat with customers before beginning a dance with a contemporary beat that dissolves into a quadrille and Regency-era duds. The connection is regularly renewed, as the actors nod, wink and throw asides during scene changes, sometimes breaking the fourth wall physically as well. At one point, Nicole Lewis, as the persistent matchmaker Mrs. Jennings pointing out eligible young men, approached and indicated me as an example. (Talk about suspension of disbelief!)
For all their differences, though, these two productions share key connections. Both are unabashedly theatrical, demanding the audience’s imagination to complete the stage pictures that aren’t there – the bloody battlefield, the graceful drawing room. Both venues are funky: the exposed heating ducts and electric conduit in Judson’s gym, the pitted stone pillars and mottled stage wall in BAM’s Harvey Theater.
Both casts play multiple roles with no intent to fool us, but to add their versatility to the stories’ universality. Even Battlefield has one moment of audience interaction – and humor – when Jared McNeill, having an armload of valuables to share, asks front-row patrons, “Are you rich?” then looks meaningfully up to the cheap seats in the balcony – an example, perhaps, of trickle-up economics?
Battlefield photos by Simon Annand
Sense & Sensibility photos courtesy of Bedlam
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