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Is humanity suited to play god?

Code writer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson: Unbroken) gets the break of a lifetime when he wins a contest to meet his boss, tech genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac: A Most Violent Year). The trip of a lifetime begins oddly: Caleb is loaded onto a helicopter, flown to the middle of nowhere, dropped off in a field and told to follow the river.
    He arrives at Nathan’s secluded cabin, where he’s given a keycard and a nondisclosure agreement. If Caleb signs, Nathan promises to reveal the real reason behind the trip; if he refuses, Nathan will hand him a beer and wish him the best.
    Eager to impress his boss and find out what innovations await, Caleb signs. Nathan in turn spills the beans: The spacious woodland home isn’t a residence; it’s a research facility. Nathan has invented the first artificially intelligent machine, and he wants Caleb to administer a Turing Test to determine whether his creation has consciousness.
    Upon meeting the machine, Ava (Alicia Vikander: Seventh Son), Caleb is astounded by the technology. He is also charmed. As Caleb and Ava bond, Nathan’s erratic drunken behavior and the facility’s frequent power outages grow worrisome. During one blackout, Ava implores Caleb not to trust Nathan.
    Creepy, tense and deeply thoughtful, Ex Machina is sci-fi for thinking moviegoers. Writer/director Alex Garland (Dredd) creates an uneasy world heavy with film reference and metaphor. So much is owed to 2001: A Space Odyssey that it wouldn’t be out of place to hear HAL’s voice boom through the sparse white and gray rooms. Garland also uses his directorial debut to show off a talent for camera work. Each frame is carefully constructed to build tension. Glass walls reveal vast yet claustrophobic space. Objects are a little off center in the frame, throwing the viewer off kilter.
    Garland’s greatest triumph, however, is his script. It works equally as rumination on the nature of invention, debate on what makes us human or metaphor for misogyny in the modern world. Viewers can dig deep to follow these themes or simply enjoy the interplay among three characters trapped in a small space.
    As Caleb, Gleeson is full of admiration and moral certainty. Once he begins to question, Gleeson lets his character unravel spectacularly. In the showier role of Nathan, Isaac is superb. He slinks into rooms, leers and drinks, his huge bushy beard making him a Howard Hughes-like figure.
    However, Vikander is the star of the film. As Ava she manages to imbue her character with childlike wonder, intelligence and burgeoning sexuality. Vikander’s nuanced performance makes Ava’s sexuality part of her embrace of humanity and learning about interaction. She is both heartbreaking and frightening as a machine who may be more human that the men evaluating her.

Great Sci-Fi • R • 108 mins.

Set to music, Oscar Wilde is twice as funny

It’s ironic that when Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest premiered in 1895, many critics loved its humor but were taken aback at its lightness, its refusal to take on heavy social or political issues of the time, as most dramas had done. The irony is that it’s exactly this drive to escape the heavy responsibilities of “position” that impel Jack Worthing to create an alter ego, Ernest, through whom Jack can live a life untethered by the demands of position.
    Even so, Wilde’s Earnest was quickly acclaimed one of his greatest works, and certainly his greatest comedy, one that moved the audience to laughter consistently and whose dialogue and characters rang so true that even today the plot seems as likely as life. Take this thespian froth, add music that stays true to the times and the story, and you end up with the hilarious hit that The Colonial Players of Annapolis is displaying on its in-the-round stage through May 16.
    Director Rick Wade — a long-time directing, acting and playwright veteran of Colonial Players (Wade wrote the book for the group’s version of A Christmas Carol, a three-decade Annapolis tradition) — knows just how to make the most of that stage. Along with set and floor designer Edd Miller and lighting designer Frank Florentine, Wade turns Colonial’s theater into a garden of comedy, with pastel flowers lining the walls behind the audience, a floor just as beautiful, lights constantly in motion and set pieces cleverly rearranged during quickly choreographed scene changes ranging from London flats to a country garden.
    Worthing, played by Eric Hufford, and his pal Algernon, played by Steven Baird, have a nice camaraderie on stage, giving the little digs that friends do. When Algernon, whose cousin Gwendolyn Jack is in love with, figures out Jack’s Ernest ruse, the plot takes off. It’s a plot that, because of Wilde’s intricacy with words and humor, requires direction that keeps the pace moving. In turn, the cast must have the talent to not only portray these characters brightly but also to reject the temptation to allow the pace to trip up a basic acting requirement: The audience must hear and understand you, especially in the round, when the actor is always facing away from at least one section of the audience. This cast gets the job done.
    From the impossible patter of “A Handbag Is Not a Proper Mother” to the round of “My Eternal Devotion,” some very nice voices are on display here. But never does the music take precedence over the comedy.
    This is a stellar cast. Erica Jureckson as Gwendolyn and Sarah Wade as Cecily, the young ward of Worthing, work very well together, especially when singing “My Very First Impression,” an irony about their ability to size up a man on first glance. Greg Jones as Lane, Worthing’s valet, is top-notch and in fine voice in “You Can’t Make Love,” with Sherri Millan’s servant girl Effie, about the many burdens of upper classdom that prevent their enjoying … ahem … life to its fullest. As Gwendolyn’s mother Lady Bracknell, Barbara Bartos is the picture of rigid elitism in that “handbag” song and throughout. And as Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble, Dianne and Duncan Hood get plenty of laughs but serve up a touching dose of mature puppy love as well as dance around their feelings for each other in “Metaphorically Speaking.”
    There are others, including several smaller characters who do double duty keeping the scene changes brisk, often getting their own tee-hees. The bottom line here is every audience’s top priority in a comedy: Keep things moving, and make us laugh. They do, and you will.

Playing thru May 16: ThFSa 8pm; Su 2pm: Colonial Players Theatre in the Round, Annapolis; $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373;

AACC Students shine in this classic thriller of unexpected stardom and unrequited love

Since Opera AACC debuted 13 years ago, the company has been renowned for outstanding productions, and this year’s The Phantom of the Opera is no exception. The surprise difference, however, is a first ever all-student cast. Students studied a range of skills from vocal production to theater props and technology at Anne Arundel Community College. You’d have to drive to Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory to find a better student version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tony Award-winning musical: a classic thriller of unexpected stardom and unrequited love.
    This mammoth undertaking includes costumes and makeup worthy of La Scala; a versatile set featuring starry nights, rolling fog, a subterranean lake and a hand-beaded chandelier 100 hours in creation; a finely tuned and precise ensemble of 26 singers with a fine ballet troupe; and some of the most fabulous voices you’ll hear on an amateur stage.
    Laura Sparks shimmers as Christine, the chorus girl turned star. Jeffrey Walter as Raoul has a swoon-worthy voice and bearing. Emily Sergo’s diva, Carlotta, exhibits phenomenal coloratura and comedic timing. Character actors Kevin Cleaver and Leonard Gilbert as managers Andre and Firmin delight, as does Lucy Bobbin as Meg. As for the Phantom, Sophomore Gabe Taylor has a heart-breaking high tenor, though his low notes, so integral to this role, lack the command that age will bring.
    The greatest musical moments come in the octet Prima Donna, the Act II opening chorus Masquerade and Christine’s duet with Raoul, All I Ask of You. See it with the one you love and feel the tender frisson.
    Technically, this show is well directed and produced with few exceptions. Christine and the Phantom are a physical mismatch, as she towers over him. Body mics do a disservice to several cast members, providing excessive consonants at the expense of the musical line. Backstage activity is all too visible to opera goers seated in the wings of the auditorium. The clumsy handling of the chandelier detracts from the spectacle. Still, these are minor points in an otherwise must-see gem of contemporary musical theater.

Director: Douglas Brandt Byerly. Music director and conductor: Blair Skinner. Set: Sean J. Urbantke. Sound: Christopher L. Ballengee. Lights: Michael D. Klima. Makeup and wigs: Kristin Clippard. Choreography: Kristi Schaffner.

Playing thru April 25: Th 7:30pm; FSa 8pm: Kauffman Theater at the Pascal Center, AACC, Arnold; $25 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-777-2457.

Who knew ghosts could get WiFi?

On the anniversary of a friend’s suicide, Blaire (Shelley Hennig: Teen Wolf) and Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm: About a Boy) are too busy sexting to mourn. When their steamy Skype session is interrupted by friends, the teens are annoyed. When a stranger joins the group video chat, they are disturbed.
    Assuming the faceless presence is a glitch, they try rebooting, then force-quitting, but the intruder remains. Most reasonable people would now close their laptops for the night, but these are not reasonable people; they are teens. So they continue the chat.
    Next, the presence types.
    The intruder claims to be Laura Barns, the friend who killed herself after an embarrassing video appeared on the Internet. Laura doesn’t want to fondly reminisce; she wants to know who in her inner circle did the upload.
    The teens aren’t convinced until Laura spills secrets. First comes humiliation of the friends one by one. Then it wants blood. As the teens drop, Blaire and Mitch try to figure out who is holding them hostage on Skype and how they can get out with their lives.
    The scariest element of Unfriended might be how well this cyber horror movie is executed. The entire film takes place on Blaire’s desktop as she toggles between chat windows, Facebook, the Internet, iTunes and Skype. The camera never moves; we never change locations. Yet director Leo Gabriadze keeps the plot of his feature film debut moving and the tension high.
    All physical action is restricted to the Skype windows, so we can select which character to watch.
    For a movie about the Internet generation, Unfriended has a lot of reading. Key plot points are cleverly uncovered as Blaire responds to messages, before deleting the revealing information she typed and changing her text to words more vague. If you can decipher her hieroglyphic-like text speak, you’ll find interesting character notes in her writing. If you’re over the age of 30, you may want to bring a teen along to translate, as no subtitles are offered.
    The film makes only one major misstep: The teens are such vapid, annoying little twits that when the blood splats across webcams, it’s hard not to root for the vengeful party. The teens have two basic emotions: nasty narcissism and voice-cracking hysterics.
    When everyone is screaming it can be a little overwhelming, and none of the characters generates anything close to sympathy. Still, there is a reason slasher films kill off sinners, jerks and fools: the audience enjoys gore without guilt.
    Unfriended is a surprisingly successful twist on the slasher genre that will speak to teens and entertain their parents. It might even convince teens to put their mobiles down, lest they too find the ghost in the machine.

Good Horror • R • 83 mins.

Don’t miss this Twin Beach Players' show, for you’re sure to walk out smiling

In a typical visit to a theater, you experience a play from your sensory point of view, including watching it unfold through plot twists and turns while listening to witty dialogue spoken by richly portrayed characters. In Twin Beach Players’ Noises Off, you get that and more as you bear witness to Noises On, a play within a play revealed from the point of view of actors preparing and starring in a comical sex farce.
    Before Noises Off has finished, you will feel exhausted, not unlike the actors, having watched seemingly countless pratfalls, observed multiple character and prop entrances and exits, heard numerous opening and closing of doors, many double entendres, reappearing sardines and other props, character-appropriate and colorful costumes — and a monstrous two-level set spun around twice by stage crew.
    Confused? Let me explain.
    Directed by Players’ president Sid Curl, English playwright Michael Frayn’s Noises Off is the story of six actors, one stage manager, one stage technician and director who rehearse and perform their play, Noises On. A standout ensemble cast and complicated physical and technical cues make Noises Off a theatrical ­triumph.
    The moment you make your way to your seat in the auditorium of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southern Maryland and see before you a two-level English country home constructed of tall painted flats, working wood stairs and numerous doors, combined with colorful prop pieces and thoughtful background music, you appreciate the transformative effort involved in this challenging undertaking.
    A combination of new and veteran performers, the strong cast reacts well to each other through deliberate character choices, effective and credible vocal variety and exceptional comic pacing and timing. Sherry Curl-Hall’s Dotty Otley is animated and energetic. Keith Mervine plays Lloyd Dallas, a convincing and experienced director. Ethan Croll’s Gary Lejeune is equally impressive with deliberate gesturing and authoritative demeanor.  Brooke Ashton as Kate Harrison creates a vain starlet threatening to quit the show whenever things don’t go her way.
    Luke Woods’ Frederick Fellowes is a believable, mature actor who respectfully questions his director. Didi Olney masters Poppy Norton-Taylor’s job as a fretful stage manager. Amy Prieto adds maturity to Belinda Blair, an eternal optimist. Kevin McCoy sparkles as obedient stage technician Tim Algood. Jeff Larsen amuses as Selsdon Mowbray, an unreliable actor with a drinking problem.
    Opening night had a few technical problems including long intermissions to turn the stage set, but they were not surprising, as the cast and crew had just one week to rehearse with the entire set in place.
    Don’t miss this show, for you’re sure to walk out smiling.

Playing thru April 26: Th-Sa: 8pm; Su 2pm: Boys & Girls Club, North Beach; $15 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-286-1890

Growing old is easy; growing up is hard

When their friends start procreating, Cornelia (Naomi Watts: Insurgent) and Josh (Ben Stiller: Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) find themselves adrift amid Mommy and Me classes and talk of nursing.
    Cornelia is a successful documentary film producer; Josh is a less-successful documentary director and film professor. A couple who enjoyed art, travel and wine, they’d continue enjoying life if everybody stopped asking them why they don’t have children.
    Twenty-five-year-old Jamie (Adam Driver: Girls) comes as opportunity knocking. Jamie and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried: A Million Ways to Die in the West) represent everything Cornelia and Josh feel their lives are missing: spontaneity, creativity and openness to new experiences.
    The older couple ditches the uptown baby crowd for the Brooklyn Bohemians. They’re drinking Argentinian potions to cleanse their souls. Josh trades his T-shirts and jackets for skinny jeans, wing tips and fedoras. Cornelia spurns cookouts at Connecticut weekend homes for hip-hop dance classes and block parties.
    Writer/director Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha) is known for his unflattering but funny looks into lives fraught with ennui. While We’re Young goes a step further. Do people really want children, or do they think they should have them? What happens if you don’t follow the rules? Will you be shunned for wanting something else?
    As the couple rejecting their 40s to relive their 20s, Stiller and Watts are fantastic. Stiller is funny as floundering Josh, who is obsessed with success, though he can never seem to grasp it. He doesn’t want to admit he’s aging, and when he sees Jamie’s creative flair, he is inspired to abandon his current life.
    Watts is the real revelation. Her Cornelia is perfectly happy in her mature 40-something life, until her best friend becomes a mother — and a stranger — and Cornelia an interloper in Mommy-themed activities. She embraces Jamie and Darby to forget her own miscarriages and escape the reminder that she is no longer valued because she doesn’t have children. It’s less a mid-life crisis than a desperate quest to be seen the way her friends used to see her.
    Funny, embarrassing and insightful, While We’re Young is the perfect film for moviegoers who feel adulthood is a rigged game.

Good Dramedy • R • 97 mins.

Bold choices — for these homesteaders and Bowie Community Theatre

Since the mid-1960s, Bowie Community Theatre’s bread and butter has been mysteries, comedies and classics. Still, it has never shied away from taking on lesser-known material with depth and message. It has found such a gem in Pearl Cleage’s 1995 production Flyin’ West. This is a beautifully written piece that brings to life the oft-ignored story of how former slaves in 1898 moved west — Kansas, in this case — toward a life of self-dependence.
    A small story with a big impact, Flyin’ West demands actors who can plow the depths of their characters’ pasts to bring us dual realities. On the one hand, that’s what they lived as slaves. On the other, it’s the hope they feel as they simultaneously work to make their town of Nicodemus an enduring success and ward off speculators who see dollar signs across the acres.    
    Director Estelle Miller has assembled a cast that makes us feel the warmth and love they have for each other, their determination to create a town that will prosper and the indignities of having darker skin at a time when whites had no legal barrier preventing them from committing all sorts of abuse.
    More specifically, this is a story of four very strong African American women, with a cast doing justice to each. It all takes place at the home of Sophie Washington and Fannie Dove, 30-something homesteaders who have opened their home to Leah, their 70-something neighbor whom they do not want to be alone during the oncoming winter.
    As Leah, Sandra Cox True gives us the past: several very touching monologues about what it was like being a female slave who had another slave forced on her to bring healthy male children to the plantation. Her story about that first time, at age 13 — and subsequent stories about the babies being taken away — are heartbreakingly real. Yet True also gives us some wonderfully funny and dry responses in her back-and-forth with the other characters … including the story of how she learned to bake an especially tart apple pie.
    As Fannie, Lolita Marie gives us the present. She bickers with Sophie, flirts with neighbor Wil Parish and seems to have aspirations of ensuring that the hardscrabble homesteader’s life doesn’t preclude having some of the finer things; she made sure their fine china went with them from Memphis to Nicodemus. Marie’s Fannie is gentle and perceptive.
    As Sophie, Kecia Campbell gives us a taste of the future as the strong-willed visionary whose singular purpose in life is to leave behind the past and forge ahead by doing all she can to ensure that Nicodemus remains in the hands of her people. She plans the layout of the town just as she plans her own future, and Campbell’s characterization is spot on. She has no intention of playing second fiddle to anyone, whether a slave overseer or the male-dominated society she faces.
    Brawnlyn Blueitt plays younger sister Minnie with appropriate innocence and tentativeness, growing stronger as she and her baby survive the abuses of her husband. Hard to believe this is Blueitt’s stage debut.
    Neighbor Wil is the good guy neighbor who would do anything to help the women, especially Fannie. Darius McCall is quite appealing; his Wil is a touch dimmer than the others, but his loyalty and strength manifest when the time comes for him to be the protector.
    Frank is Minnie’s husband. A mulatto born of a white man and a slave mother, Ben Harris walks a bit of an acting tightrope as Frank. The character as written threatens to fall into cliché: frustrated self-hating drunk gambler who hits his wife and wants to sell their land. But Cleage doesn’t quite allow Frank to cross that line, and Harris’s performance, while potent, is subtle enough to make us believe Frank’s self-loathing and explosiveness.
    It all takes place on a beautifully realized set of a see-through house by set designer Dan Lavagan, lit nicely by Bowie Playhouse veteran pro Garrett Hyde. The pace on opening night was occasionally tentative, both with the actors’ lines and long scene changes, all of which are sure to tighten up as the run progresses.
    One can hope: the show started at 8pm. Act I ran 1.5 hours, and it all ended about 10:50. Nearly three hours is long even for a musical, much less a straight play. But that’s a minor caveat considering the importance of this story.
    This brilliant script brought to life by riveting performances adds another chapter to how the West was won.

Playing thru April 25: FSa 8pm; 2pm Sa April 18 and Su April 19: Bowie Community Theatre, White Marsh Park, Bowie; $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 301-805-0219;

Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

To make a film in the Fast & Furious franchise you need three things: Flashy cars, hulking biceps lathered in baby oil and heart-pounding action sequences. What you don’t need are actors or plot.
    Furious 7 keeps this tradition alive with a film so filled with screeching tires, machismo and surprising sentiment it almost distracts you from the abysmal performance of the lead and ridiculous plot.
    In a London hospital, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham: The Expendables 3) stands over the broken body of his baby brother Owen (the baddie from Fast and Furious 6). Swearing vengeance on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel: Guardians of the Galaxy) and his crew of racers, Deckard hunts them down one by one.
    He kills one and hobbles Hobbs (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson: Hercules), Toretto’s law enforcement ally, before finding Dominic. Toretto goes on the offensive, reuniting his team for one last ride — just as in the past three movies.
    Dominic’s brother-in-law and partner in crime Brian (Paul Walker: Brick Mansions) is facing his own crisis. Now a father and husband, he’s chaffing at driving a minivan instead of a muscle car. He tells his wife Mia (Jordana Brewster: Dallas) he misses the bullets, and she worries that he’s unhappy with family life.
    Can Brian settle into domesticity? Can Toretto and his gang defeat Deckard? Who is buying these idiots million dollar cars to destroy?
    Director James Wan (Insidious: Chapter 2) continues a brainless and still popular formula as old as Sylvester Stallone.
    The problem with Wan’s brand of mindless action is that it’s toothless. To earn the lucrative PG-13 rating, he must make a hardcore action film that’s kid-friendly. As a result, bullets and fists fly, but it’s a bloodless affair with seemingly few consequences. Women are dressed as sex objects, but to ensure parents bring their teens, there is no actual nudity — just plenty of up-skirt shots.
    Wan does surprisingly well within the restrictions on violence and nudity. Two of the hand-to-hand combat scenes are brilliantly choreographed and paced. The fight between Johnson and Statham is a brutal highpoint with both actors throwing everything they have at each other. But the real star of these movies has always been the cars. When we’re watching preposterous physics-defying car chases, it’s a fantastic spectacle that perfectly complements a fistful of popcorn.
    Impressively, Wan manages to inject a little sentiment into this ode to macho posturing. His tribute to Walker, who died while making the film, is both touching and fitting to the franchise. Wan and the editors should be credited for cobbling together Walker’s final performance using doubles, digital editing and the few scenes filmed before his demise.
    What Wan and his team of talented editors couldn’t fix, however, was Diesel’s performance. Blank, meaty and potato-like in both expression and demeanor, Diesel is an abysmal actor. His lack of a human personality was less noticeable in the first films; here, with the addition of exemplary supporting actors, you notice. Both Statham and Johnson crackle with charisma, and international action superstar Tony Jaa commands the screen in a nearly wordless performance.
    In spite of the wealth of action talent, Wan chooses to subject us to Diesel’s lumbering attempts at acting for seemingly endless stretches of film. Pairing him with Johnson and Statham seems like a cruel joke.
    With fantastic action and a bit of heart, Furious 7 isn’t nearly as bad as it could have been — if you can ignore Diesel.

Fair Action • PG-13 • 137 mins.

Truth doesn’t matter if you yell loud enough

Who do you trust? When experts debate on television an issue like climate change, do you believe that both are qualified?
    Most often, the debaters are experts in speaking, not science.
    It turns out that the news is just another TV show. Lively debate, doubt and fear-mongering make for great ratings. There is little incentive to seek out facts when bread and circuses bring in money and viewers.
    In 2004, science historian Naomi Oreskes became interested in a phrase common in the Global Warming debate: “No consensus has been reached among scientists on the matter of climate change.” Oreskes read through every scientific paper on climate change published in journals from 1993 to 2003. Out of 928 articles, she found none that refuted climate change.
    If there was no disagreement in the scientific community, where did this dissent come from?
    Hint: It’s not science.
    Pundits are hired by think tanks and corporations to argue their case, not sift through the facts or do independent research. To that end, they manipulate data, suggest that scientists have a hidden agenda and lie. These experts also become the faces for volunteer groups backed by major corporations that depend on the status quo for their profits.
    Based on a book by Oreskes and Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt is a documentary that takes a troubling look at how easy it is to lead people away from the facts. Using the tobacco industry and the climate-change debate as his two main topics, director Robert Kenner (Food Inc.) examines how corporations manipulate citizens, government and the law to further their interests.
    Kenner interviews scientists who have been battered by the press and professional spin-doctors. Ill prepared by a life of research to deal with slick PR men, many of these researchers look befuddled when confronted by misinformation. James Hansen, one of the fathers of the climate change movement, admits that he wasn’t prepared to become the face of global warming. Nor was he prepared for the backlash. Death threats, smear campaigns and aggressive politicking.
    Those on the other side seem to enjoy being contrarians. All pundits readily admit to Kenner that they don’t conduct research; they merely interpret. Marc Morano, founder of Climate Depot, seems to revel in the fight if not the facts. He enjoys going after scientists who question his view that global warming is a liberal hoax, often publishing their personal email addresses and encouraging his followers to send hate mail.
    Kenner’s only misstep is his over-reliance on metaphor. To liken pundits to magicians performing card tricks, he uses a repeating motif of shuffling decks and sleight of hand. The framing device seems silly compared to the seriousness of the issues.
    Like most documentaries that take a bold stand, Merchants of Doubt will likely make you angry. Whether you’re furious at the pundits or Kenner’s take on climate change largely depends on what side of the debate you fall.

Good Documentary • PG-13 • 96 mins.

Intimate setting, top-notch acting, taut direction and high production values bring this classic to life

For this classic, less is more.
     The Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s production of Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility, uses a script nicely streamlined and adapted to the stage by Jon Jory, whose versions of other classics like Pride and Prejudice the company has presented over its brief history. As impressive as the script’s fidelity to the novel is Annapolis Shakespeare’s confidence in its ability to tell a complex story with nary a set piece other than a few chairs and a trunk.
    After spending time at the Bowie Playhouse, Annapolis Shakespeare moved into its Chinquapin Round Road facility just a couple of years ago, and began doing its plays there even more recently. By using a less-is-more philosophy — and knowing that solid talent and direction are quite a bit more important to good storytelling than extensive sets and facilities — producing artistic director Sally Boyett nicely adapts to the company’s small, 70-seat space.
    In the case of Sense and Sensibility, Boyett gives us the classic story of two young sisters. Elinor is filled with sense and prudence, a level-head. Marianne is filled with sensibility — emotion, romance — and always speaks her mind. Though written in the late 1700s, Austen’s work remains loved, read and performed because she captured ideas and feelings that are essentially timeless.
    This story of love, laughter and heartache is brought to us by a cast of actors led by Laura Rocklyn as Marianne Dashwood and Rebecca Swislow as Elinor Dashwood. Rocklyn’s Marianne is a charmer, attracting us via her refusal to hold her tongue as well as the humor of what she says when she does speak. Rocklyn and Swislow work very well together; this is a pair that you can believe are sisters.
    They and their widowed mother, played nicely by Sue Struve, are forced to move into a small cottage after their half-brother (the elegant Brian Keith MacDonald) and his wife, played to the hilt of vanity by Renata Plecha, decide that they prefer to take the family estate and force the trio out.
    Evicted, they settle in a small cottage in Devonshire, near the home of her cousin John Middleton and his wife, who welcome the three openly, soon introducing them to local society. As Middleton, Richard Pilcher is gregarious and warm, quite the opposite of what they had experienced before being forced out.
    But Sense and Sensibility is not so much about society connections as it is about the two girls and the suitors who come calling: Edward Ferrars (Patrick Truhler), whose engagement to another is kept secret but who becomes attracted to Elinor; John Willoughby (James Carpenter), a charmer but a cheater whose engagement to Marianne is presumed by many but never official; and Colonel Brandon (Joel Ottenheimer), a tall, good guy who takes on the charge of the daughter of a woman he loved but was not allowed by family to marry, and who falls in love with Marianne.
    All three give us tightly drawn and distinctive characters, each bringing their unique backgrounds to bear on the present, and each revealing to us the chemistry that has formed their affections for the sisters.
    As always with Annapolis Shakespeare, costumes are expansive but true to the period, lighting of the small space is imaginative and evocative and Boyett’s choreography of scene changes keeps things moving apace, with each scene blending into the next clearly yet with nary a visual or verbal gap.
    In other words, less is more: an intimate setting, top-notch acting, taut direction and high production values are more than enough to bring this classic to life.

Production stage manager: Sara K. Smith. Lighting design: Colin Dieck. Costumes: Kat McKerrow. Dialect coach: Nancy Krebs

Playing thru May 3: FSa 8pm (and 2pm, Sa April 4); Su 3pm: Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Studio 111, 111 Chinquapin Round Rd., Annapolis; $35 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-415-3513;