GO GET LOST IN AUSTEN
I drove to Jane Austen UnScripted directly from a production of Oklahoma! as grand and empty as the wind sweepin’ down the plains. With a quarter of the cast of that Rogers and Hammerstein show, and a tithe of the expense, seven Impro Theatre actor/writers showed more integrity to the spirit of the author they were emulating – this, though the Oklahoma! team had the advantage of using a script.
It is typical of Impro to invest in character and strive for authenticity, but still, I had not expected a riff on Jane Austen to cleanse the taste of sugar from my palate. Her admirers will respond that I don’t know Austen – and it’s true. I tried to read Emma and failed and that was twenty years ago. So I also doubted whether the show could seem very funny or relevant to someone who knows the source author only from a couple of movie adaptations. Happily, happily, I was wrong. This show is a most excellent tonic to initiate and ignoramus alike.
Impro Theatre‘s mission to improvise full-length plays of structural and thematic integrity revolves around archetypal characters, situations, and philosophies in recognizable literary oeuvres. Using little but an exhaustive rehearsal process, some beautiful costumes, and presence of mind, this company gets as many laughs as any comedy troupe in town. But there’s more going on here. It’s not about finding the joke as much as finding the joke organic to this story. And though I laughed so loudly as to make a spectacle of my mirth, much to my mortification, the story doesn’t always cater to the funny bone. A heart beats in the Impro hope chest.
Herewith is offered an unconscionably detailed synopsis which contains no spoilers, since it refers to a show never to be seen again. In this second-weekend performance before a packed house, manic, stooped widower Mr. Green (Brian Lohmann) finds himself possessed of unmarried daughters. Susan (Lauren Rose Lewis), a sensible young woman trying to fill her departed mother’s petticoats, steers her adorable but slightly simple younger sister Mary (Rebecca Lowman) toward responsibility and womanhood. With the help of their half-deaf butler Stevens (Floyd Van Buskirk), both sisters attempt to distract their heartbroken cousin Miss Carter (Patty Wortham) at their country estate. Unctuous vicar Mr. Annesley (Mr. Lohmann, again) romances Mary Green; Miss Carter pines for the man who abandoned his promise to her; Susan solicits much advice from her good friend and neighbor Mr. Huntley (Dan O’Connor, who directed along with Paul Rogan). Huntley hosts his old brother-in-arms, the socially inexperienced Mr. Dunham (Mr. Van Buskirk), and Dunham’s unmarried, city-girl sister Margaret (Kelly Holden-Bashar) on their visit to Hertfordshire. At an impromptu pianoforte recital that goes on long enough to make everyone uncomfortable, Dunham’s eye falls upon Mary; his sophisticated sister conceives an infatuation for Huntley that he, for reasons unknown to himself, cannot reciprocate. Later, the Vicar Mr. Annesley’s seemingly offhand gossip scandalizes the neighborhood when he insinuates an intrigue between the innocent Dunham and Miss Carter. At an assembly, tensions run high and fairly ruin the dancing. Susan Green and Huntley have a dismaying disagreement and almost but not quite realize the depth of their mutual admiration. Alarmed at the unwonted discord in the county, the ladies persuade Dunham to admit that he knows a dark secret about Annesley’s past. But Dunham is too much the gentleman to divulge the vicar’s abandoned wife and daughter, or his circus performer heritage… until the rascal absconds with the impressionable young Mary. A horseback pursuit follows, Huntley and Dunham racing Annesley’s carriage across the rolling hills; Dunham leaps from his saddle onto the galloping horses to stop the vehicle. The girl is reclaimed; the cad is sent packing in disgrace. Susan confesses her failure as a caretaker of other people’s affairs; fortunately she does so to Huntley, who has his own revelations, mostly about his feelings for her. One might say that by the end of the scene they have reached “an understanding.” In a touchingly awkward display, Dunham makes perfectly clear his intention to court Mary; Mary promises not to be silly anymore. To this potpourri of new romance old Mr. Green brings a letter that has come for Miss Carter from her long-lost beau…
The only part of the evening that remains the same at every performance is the very beginning, when the players ask the audience for a topic of conversation. Last weekend someone suggested tea, and Ms. Lewis demurred on the grounds that they’d already done enough talking about tea for one run. (The show I saw sprang from the single word “cheese.”) The cast rotates – for instance: Ms. Lowman, a New York-based actress, had taken classes at the Impro school but had never performed with them before last weekend. She did a brilliant job, and all the players were lovely; but you expect that from the most experienced players, Misters Van Buskirk, Lohmann, and O’Connor.
I am sorry to say that you will not have the opportunity to see the pop-eyed gaffer that Mr. Lohmann created and played so well; but there is no shortage of lovable old men in Austen. You will not see Mr. Van Buskirk’s mumbling earnestness as the young lover I saw him play. He may play a different young lover in another story, since Austen stories would fall apart without eligible bachelors. But I guarantee he will not be the same. His stumbling reserve as a deaf, slightly befuddled butler in this show was utterly different from the wise, articulate house servant I saw him play in Chekhov UnScripted.
These are superior artists the like of which is not easy to see on Los Angeles stages. In its minimalist, explosively theatrical way, Impro provides the perfect counterpoint to the cherished classics so often glibly revived for season ticket holders at the big houses around the country. Last Saturday’s Austen evoked fields of flowers, stately ballrooms, equine competition, pleasant drawing-rooms, and the high road to London – all with no props and less set dressing than was contained in Oklahoma!’s corn field fly-drop.
So, no, you won’t see the show I’m raving about. The next Austen Unscripted performance will be an entirely new story, invented and illustrated before your eyes, for you. It will contain other delights that even the storytellers will not know until they improvise them.
photos by Alison Inconstanti/Puck Photography
Jane Austen UnScripted
Carrie Hamilton Theatre (upstairs at The Pasadena Playhouse)
scheduled to end on April 14, 2013
for tickets, call (626) 356-7529 or visit http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org