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Theatre in Review: Persuasion (Bedlam/Connelly Theatre)

Arielle Yoder, Annabel Capper, Yonatan Gebeyehu, Nandita Shenoy, Jamie Smithson. Photo: Ashley Garrett

I have a modest proposal: Enough with Jane Austen. The lady needs a rest.

Austen died in 1817, but she remains the center of a multinational industry, currently with 88 credits on the Internet Movie Database. Her novels have been filmed, dramatized, and musicalized in all media ad nauseam, and that's not including the cinematic "reimaginings" like Clueless (Emma goes to Beverly Hills), From Prada to Nada ("a Latina spin on Sense and Sensibility"), and Before the Fall (a gay Pride and Prejudice set in West Virginia). We will draw a veil over Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, no matter how many copies it sold. But, having been revered, reinterpreted, and spoofed into near oblivion, the Austen motherlode is looking tapped out.

Certainly Bedlam's Persuasion, adapted by Sarah Rose Kearns, is so much of a piece with the company's earlier Sense and Sensibility that it almost seems like a revival. Like its predecessor (written by Kate Hamill)), Persuasion contrasts incisively written and acted moments with broad bits of comic shtick, wild bursts of overemoting, and distracting staging ideas. An approach that, a few seasons ago, was hailed by some as fresh and contemporary is looking increasingly exhausted.

For those who have kept their distance from the Austenpalooza in recent years, Persuasion is the tale of Anne Elliot, who, as a young woman, was persuaded by her godmother, Lady Russell, to refuse the proposal of Frederick Wentworth, a naval officer commencing his career. Eight years later, Anne, a spinster, deeply regrets her decision. Because of her vain and social-climbing father's spendthrift ways, the family's country home must be leased, a decision that brings Frederick -- now prosperous and still single -- back into her life.

Anne and the aloof, opaque Frederick are separated by a gallery of self-involved, self-justifying, and often scheming characters -- presented here, under Eric Tucker's direction, as a procession of grotesque caricatures, thus turning Austen's coolly perceptive novel into a frantic burlesque. Anne's sister Mary, a perpetually dissatisfied young matron, is a mad housewife perched on the edge of hysteria, prone to screaming matches and necking sessions with her husband (Jamie Smithson). The Crofts, a genial married couple who become the Elliots' tenants, are given to bursts of braying laughter, a gag rolled out to ever diminishing returns. Lady Dalrymple, the Elliots' rich relation and a pillar of propriety, is a drag role: Yonatan Gebeyehu, in men's clothing and a grand lady's wig, vamps a spectator in the front row and, seizing one of the male characters, drags him down to the stage floor, trapping him in the missionary position.

The borrowings are from everywhere. From vaudeville: A reference to hunting guarantees that a couple of dead ducks will fall from above. From musical theatre: A birthday mention cues a balloon drop; the pesky things linger, kicked around by the actors and landing in the audience. From Monty Python: When Anne and Frederick share a fateful meeting on the street, he carries a giant sheep under his arm. Non sequiturs rule here: Whenever someone mentions Charles Hayter (a minor character who remains offstage), another actor, standing at a floor mic, shouts the name again. Indeed, there are two floor mics, downstage right and left, where actors occasionally repair for birdcalls, to clink cutlery and glasses during dinner scenes, or to simulate the sounds of lovemaking to the point of orgasm. It's Persuasion with Foley effects and I could have done without any of them. (Jane Shaw is the sound designer.)

Whatever else is going on at the Connelly, Arielle Yoder is an Anne Elliot of sense and sensibility, the owner of a full heart and inquiring intelligence, reconciled to being ignored by those who profess to love her. Rajesh Bose isn't an obvious choice for Frederick -- he's a bit old for the role and not really the dashing figure who, in the novel, captivates so many of the female characters -- but he brings tremendous feeling and intelligence to the role. He and Yoder share a chemistry that leaves one convinced that Anne and Frederick can find happiness in a shallow, grasping world. Also making solid contributions are Randolph Curtis Rand, double-cast as Anne's father and an aging, melancholy sailor drawn into Anne's circle and Nandita Shenoy as lively, kindly Mrs. Croft and Anne's chilly sister Elizabeth.

There's little to say about the spare production design, although Les Dickert's lighting often relies on a single handheld unit, creating shadowy effects more suitable for a '40s detective film than a comedy of Regency manners. Kearns' script largely retains the novel's narrative, although, possibly to keep the running time from breaking the two-and-a-half-hour mark, she drops the key character of Mrs. Smith, an impecunious invalid who unmasks Anne's least trustworthy suitor. Persuasion, a largely interior novel built around a passive heroine, was never going to be an easy adaptation, but this version drags noticeably, especially in the second half. If anything, the excessive fooling around slows things down.

Perhaps the folks at Bedlam, in their first production since lockdown, hoped to replicate Sense and Sensibility, which was something of a popular success. In any case, this Persuasion feels like a retread. Try the 1995 film, directed by Roger Michell, who so sadly left us last week. Or read the book. Or take an Austen break. Like Anne Elliot, she'll be there, waiting, when you're ready to return. -- David Barbour

(29 September 2021)

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