News Editor Victoria Borlando and Staff Writer Emma Burris recently attended a production of Sense and Sensibility: 1976 organized by the student-run theater group Columbia University Players.
This past weekend, the Columbia University Players (CUP) put on a production of Sense and Sensibility: 1976 in Barnard’s Glicker-Milstein Theater. Three performances occurred on Friday, November 11th at 7 pm, and Saturday, November 12th at 2 pm and 7 pm. We attended the Saturday matinee.
This play, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility, was set in New York City in 1976. The director, Anjali Ramakrishnan (BC ’23), set out to adapt this novel with a focus on women of color and their experiences. She chose this setting because it “acknowledges these identities without solely focusing on oppression, rather than being ‘color blind’ or solely steeped in racial trauma,” as stated in her Director’s Note.
Sense and Sensibility: 1976 follows the young Dashwood sisters Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret as they are forced out of their home and inheritance by their older brother, John, and his wife Fanny, after the death of their father. Elinor (Anja Vasa, BC ‘25) finds herself falling for Jimmy Carter campaign manager and brother-in-law Edward Ferrars (Frankie DeGiorgio, BC ‘24), who is plagued by his own romantic commitments. Marianne (Elsa Chung, CC ‘23) has to choose between charming Willoughby (Jasmine Richards, BC ‘26) and older Vietnam veteran Colonel Brandon (José Tallaj, CC ‘26). Taking liberty from the original novel, Ramakrishnan chose to introduce themes of immigration-related prejudice as well as the conflict between familial obligation and career desires. This gave the text a fresh and modernized perspective, depicting the urban immigrant experience and portraying women with lives existing outside of their relations with men.
For any modern adaptation, it is important to make sure that the core aspects of the original story carry through in a new setting while also functioning as a standalone piece. For a Jane Austen novel adaptation specifically, it’s crucial to keep the spirit of the ridiculousness of the romances and political moves while also making sure that the message stays relevant for contemporary audiences. Ramakrishnan’s script did exactly that.
It was evident that Ramakrishnan shared a passion for Jane Austen and her silly yet charming characters: from Colonel Brandon’s reserved steadiness, to Marianne’s fiery passion, to Willoughby’s charm and arrogance, the director clearly understood how each character would have acted had they grown up in 20th-century New York, and how their motivations and personal stories would shape them. For instance, it made perfect sense that Elinor, the character representing “sense” who sacrifices a lot of her own happiness to keep her mother and sisters supported, would be struggling to finish her PhD in physics while taking care of her family. For Marianne, the role of an English teacher who cares about politics suited her “sensible” archetype, all while giving a refreshing take on the younger sister who wants to get married quickly.
The actors evidently understood their characters’ motivations as well. Vasa perfectly embodied a woman who was intent on sacrificing her dreams to protect her family by remaining cool for almost the entire play, building up tension to her final breakdown, where she gave chills to the audience by screaming at Willoughby with rage and tears. Chung was a fiery Marianne, not only paying homage to the character’s passions that sometimes get in the way of making smart decisions, but also highlighting the love and maturity Marianne has, which is something often and sadly downplayed in different adaptations of the novel. Chung understood Marianne’s humor, her dramatic flair—Chung kept limping around the stage until she needed her bad leg to kick her little sister in the shins—and delivered an overall unforgettable performance. Margaret (Ana Sanchez-Medina, CC ‘25) was a standout character, portraying the youngest Dashwood through subtly hilarious actions. Sanchez-Medina perfectly captures the essence of a youngest daughter’s interactions with her older sisters, through bickering about whether they had drunk out of her favorite mug and wallowing in a post-dinner food coma. These witty remarks formed the backbone of the comedic nature and contemporary relevance of the play. Another memorable performance includes Fanny (Lauren Unterberger, BC ‘24), who draws in the audience at the start of the first act as she dramatically flails on the couch and expresses her sarcastic condolences to the Dashwood sisters. At the Saturday matinee, Mrs. Jennings (Anna Kasun, CC ‘24) effectively improvised the line “My house is falling apart!” as a Simon & Garfunkel poster fell off the wall. It is evident that this production’s cast is full of comedic talent, perfect for an Austenian adaptation.
From Left to Right: Anja Vasa (BC ‘25) as Elinor, Elsa Chung (CC ‘23) as Marianne, and Ana Sanchez-Medina (CC ‘25) as Margaret.
Another important detail of Ramakrishnan’s script was that it is a standalone piece that revived a beloved Austenian plot. Yes, she kept the iconic moments of the novel like Marianne slipping in the park in the rain, only to be saved by the “chivalrous” charlatan Willoughby, or the gossip culture that formed the backbone of English gentry society, but her own story of three sisters in 1970s was riveting on its own. The modern jokes were funny and self-aware: Vasa delivered a standout line, as she pointed out the ridiculousness of everyone knowing each other in two large cities like Boston and New York and screamed, “How are we all in the same social circles!” Furthermore, nothing made more sense in the show than having Willoughby become a snooty Columbia boy who looks down upon women’s colleges and thinks waving around Hamlet like a flag makes him the smartest man in the room. That’s a certified pre-co-ed Columbia Willoughby!
The only aspect of the adaptation that could have used a little more thought was the subplot about the Dashwood family name. In Ramakrishnan’s story, the Dashwoods immigrated to the United States a few generations before we met our characters, and they originally had another name until they decided to anglicize it. The whole point of this detail seemed like it was to develop the relationship between the Colonel and Marianne, seeing that he accidentally racially profiles her and causes the protagonist to dislike him for most of the play. It comes back at the end when they’re both trying to get to know each other better, and admitting her family history demonstrated Marianne’s openness to the Colonel. However, though we could see what the script was trying to do, it was still a bit of a throwaway and left a confusing message for the audience. At first, we all sympathized with Marianne: the question of “Where are you really from?” is insensitive and justifies her reaction to a confused Colonel Brandon. However, the way this plot point develops implies that Marianne was wrong for thinking Colonel Brandon’s prodding question was insensitive, which made it harder for the audience to accept. With a little more thought, and perhaps a bit more complexity with how the family history influences other characters’ decisions throughout the play, this detail could have had more potential.
The humor of the play also incorporated references to Columbia and Barnard, such as a jab at the eurocentrism of the core and the exclamation “She went to a women’s college! Only lesbians go to women’s colleges!” While it was creative to weave in direct connections to campus life, it felt too intentional and corny at times, taking the focus away from the clever humor spotlighted throughout the rest of the script.
Additionally, the physical space contributed to the positive experience of attending Sense and Sensibility: 1976. No longer were we in a stuffy, English mansion but a cozy, groovy home that looked very much like a real house in the 1970s. The color scheme of the blankets, as well as the clashing of intricate patterns throughout the house and warm-toned lights, emanated warmth: any room with the Dashwood girls felt like a welcome space for everyone.
Photo of the Set Design in Act I
Overall, we really enjoyed the CUP performance of Sense and Sensibility: 1976, and are excited to see what the cast, crew, and especially Ramakrishnan do next!
Staff Writer Emma Burris and News Editor Victoria Borlando contributed to the writing of this review.
The Dashwood Family Love via Maya Shore of CU Players
The Dashwood Sisters via Maya Shore
Set Design via Staff Writer Emma Burris