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A Spinster in Love, Jane Austen Style
“Persuasion” by Jane Austen, adapted by Sarah Rose Kearns for Bedlam
Connelly Theatre, 220 East 4th Street, NYC.
September 11– October 31, 2021
Tues. – Sat. at 7 PM; Sat. and Sun. at 2 PM. $90.00.
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.
Tickets at https://bedlam.org/persuasion or call 833 4bEDLAM
Cast of Bedlam's "Persuasion." Photo by Ashley Garrett.
Adaptations are tricky. They have to feel fresh and new to people who know the source, but also remain true to the spirit of the work. And for those who have only heard the title, clarity and focus are essential, especially in dramatizing a novel with many characters. The Belgium director Ivo van Hove’s directorial adaptations – some would say rewrites -- often seem more interested in shock value but his wide Broadway following, including me, have forged a third path. Bedlam is a New York gem, a premiere innovator in transforming classics, especially works by Jane Austen, into lyrical renderings. Songs, dance, and comedy have provided a lightness that seems very much in the spirit of Austen’s work.
Their latest contribution is “Persuasion,” a late work (1817) that references the Napoleonic Wars. Clever direction is by Eric Tucker, Artistic Director, who was named by the Wall Street Journal as Director of the Year in 2014. Anne Elliot (Arielle Yoder) is considered a spinster at 27. She broke her engagement at 19 to Captain Frederick Wentworth (Rajesh Bose) because Lady Russell (Annabel Capper), her aunt, disapproved of her wedding a poor navy man whose family was inferior to the Elliot’s. When the play opens the Elliot family is in dire economic straits. They must rent their family home and relocate to Bath, a fashionable resort. The renters include Mrs. Croft, Captain Wentworth’s sister. Our heroine comes face to face with her spurned lover and finds she still love him.
Of course we know how it ends. Meanwhile two other men become interested in Anne, but each is tempted away by younger women. The captain discovers his affections for Anne remain strong despite the memory of rejection. She proposed and all is well. It’s not an exciting plot for a contemporary audience so we expect Bedlam to work their magic, and we are not disappointed. Lady Mary, Anne’s jealous younger sister, is a hoot. She’s overly dramatic, inconsistent, and reactive to everything, but in the very capable hands of Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy, she is also totally appealing. The minute she appears on stage, we know we are going to have fun.
The same is true of Jamie Smithson, who plays her husband and Mr. Eliot, both of them with panache. As Charles Musgrove, Lady Mary’s husband, he is a comic genius with admirable timing as he listens to his wife and then does exactly as he intended to do. Their love-making – with stand-up microphones – is both conventional and astonishing, and some ceiling plaster falls on Captain Wentworth’s head during their vigorous affection. Love in Austen, via Bedlam, is full-on emotion. As Eliot, Smithson courts Anne and then leaves her for an illicit affair, which Bedlam wisely left unexplained. If audiences want to know, they can read the book. Less clutter, more drama.
Nandita Shenoy was another stand out performer. Her high energy and total commitment to the production are irresistible. As Captain Wentworth’s sister, she and her husband (Yonatan Gebeyehu) are an attractive but bizarre couple, always amused at some private joke. It works wells. It seems that at any moment they will share the humor with us. Shenoy is also engaging in cross-dress as Captain Benwick, a man in deep mourning for his recently deceased fiancée. He finds our heroine intelligent, welcomes a reading list from her and seems ready to let his heart heal when we learn that he has proposed to another woman.
I was happy to be in the audience, but at 2 ½ hours “Persuasion” needs some Marie Kondo. The clutter of course is part of the joy of an Austen novel, all the minor characters and their quirks, their intersection with the lives of others, their mishaps and joys. But in a piece of theatre, they can be confusing and worse, attention-deadening. The actors playing the two younger women who threaten our heroine’s marriage hopes were difficult to understand and contributed too little to the drama.
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