Bedlam’s return to live in-person theater with its new adaptation of Jane Austen’s romantic final novel — about a woman who meets once again the man whose proposal of marriage she rejected eight years earlier – follows up on a decade of the theater company’s consistently innovative and timely staging of the classics. In their first production, in 2012, four actors performed all 24 roles of Shaw’s “Saint Joan.” They chose to present Shaw’s “Pygmalion” in 2018 (with six actors portraying ten characters), to coincide with the Broadway revival of “My Fair Lady,” the musical inspired by the play. Last November, three actors performed in the company’s hour-long Zoom production of “The Machine Stops,” adapted from a prescient 1909 short story by E.M. Forster, about a world in which people stay indoors and do everything by machine, where touching is obsolete, and people have a “horror of direct experience.”
Given the track record — of their productions, and of my reaction to them — I had good reason to expect that I would feel as nourished, impressed and entertained by Bedlam’s “Persuasion,” which is being presented Off-Off Broadway at the Connelly Theater through October 31, 2021. And indeed I was wholeheartedly engaged with the play –- for the last 15 minutes. The previous two hours — not so much.
It could be I am simply not yet ready to sit (masked) for a full-length period drama. (Any return requires adjustment.) The cast and creative team certainly work hard to be both faithful to, and playful with, Austen’s story.
Rather than start at the same place as the novel, Bedlam begins with a prologue. We see Wentworth (Rajesh Bose) give Anne (Arielle Yoder) a gift of a book on her 19th birthday, and discuss poetry and politics with her before he asks her to marry him, and Anne says yes. And then we witness Lady Russell (Annabel Capper), her confidante and surrogate mother, persuading her she is too young to commit to him, and he is not good enough for her. (“How will he ever support you.”)
It is a scene repeated a few times throughout the play (presumably replaying in Anne’s head) as Wentworth comes back into her life eight years later, having achieved success and riches in the Navy, and become a Captain.
The bulk of the play is taken up with the possibility of other suitors for both Wentworth and for Anne. But we’re not fooled. Two hundred years after the book’s posthumous publication, such plot twists are a familiar feint. Even if you have not read the novel, nor watched any of the many stage and screen adaptations, the set-up is a more subtle version of nearly every romantic comedy, in which the two leading characters are at odds – often, they actively dislike one another — but get together at the end. We know this, we expect this, we’re not bothered by this; it’s what makes them romantic comedies.
All the complications, the parallel subplots, the ancillary characters, can feel like so much filler. As talented as the Bedlam company is, the cast of ten (large for Bedlam) perform (by my count) 28 roles, taxing my ability (willingness?) to follow it all.
This feels particularly the case because the center doesn’t quite hold. Wentworth disappears for much of the play. It also doesn’t help that Bose is clearly some two decades older than the age Wentworth is supposed to be, which is 31. Yoder is supposed to be 27 and looks it. Bose is a good actor, but it proved hard to ignore their obvious difference in age, which changed the dynamic of their relationship. (Maybe Lady Russell had a point?) In any case, there’s no immediately graspable chemistry between the two of them.
If I didn’t react to “Persuasion” as enthusiastically as to their previous productions, it’s still Bedlam, and that means beauty, humor and precision in the design, and much clever and enlivening stage business. At times, while a scene plays out upstage, members of the cast stand at the lip of the stage and create sound effects – singing birds, a rain storm. There’s puckish staging involving a music box. A performer sprays water in the face of a character who is coming in from the rain. There is the comic interlude of Lady Dalrymple, portrayed in drag by Yonatan Gebeyehu (one of his five roles in the play) – although the mirthful reaction of his cast mates clued me into the possibility that not everything he did was planned; it may have been an accident that the character tumbled down and lost her white wig. What was clearly planned were the lovely singing, lively piano playing, decorous dancing.
And there are those swoon-worthy final fifteen minutes, when Anne and Wentworth prove the nay-sayers wrong, demonstrating a match in both superior mind and dedicated heart.
Connelly Theater through October 31, 2021
Written by Sarah Rose Kearns adapted from the novel by Jane Austen
Directed by Eric Tucker
Runtime: 2 hours, 35 min including intermission
Tickets: $40 to $90
Scenic design by John McDermott, costume design by Charlotte Palmer-Lane, lighting design by Les Dickert, sound design by Jane Shaw, choreography by Susannah Millonzi, intimacy direction by Judi Lewis Ockler, props design by Clifton Chadick
Cast: Rajesh Bose, Annabel Capper, Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy, Yonatan Gebeyehu, Carolin Grogan, Claire Hsu, Sarah Rose Kearns, Randolph Curtis Rand, Nandita Shenoy, Jamie Smithson, Arielle Yoder.
photos by Ashley Garrett