Improv is a tricky art form. It requires an actor’s imagination, concentration, quick thinking, and the ability to maintain a straight face no matter what is being said or done. Imagine now a group of actors improvising an entire two-act play. Quite definitely a daunting task, yet this is precisely the challenge which the sensational talents behind Impro Theatre have undertaken in their smash hit Jane Austen UnScripted.
The success of film and TV adaptations of Pride And Prejudice, Sense And Sensibility, Emma, and other Jane Austen classics has created a whole new generation of Austen fans, many of whom may never have picked up an actual Jane Austen novel, yet know that an Austen tale will feature plucky heroines in search of true love and parents more interested in picking an appropriate upper-class husband for their monetarily-challenged daughters than in fulfilling anyone’s romantic aspirations.
Jane Austen UnScripted takes the basic rules and premises of an Austen novel, and improvises a story which Jane herself might have concocted, but didn’t.
What follows is the description of the first half of last night’s totally improvised two-act Impro Theatre “Jane Austen Romance.” Since no two performances are ever the same, this play-by-play is offered as an example/preview of the ingenuity, imagination, and hilarity which ensue on a typical evening of improvisational entertainment.
Jane Austen UnScripted begins with a question. “What quality would a young lady who wishes to be accomplished want to have?” A single response from an audience member is all that is needed to set the evening’s improvised play in motion.
A member of last night’s audience came up with the answer “piano playing,” prompting actress Kari Coleman to take a seat behind an antique desk—transformed in an instant into a 19th Century pianoforte thanks to the quick thinking and rapid response of sound and lighting whiz Jim Sabo. As the fingers of our young heroine, henceforward known as Evelyn Hampton, danced across the imaginary keyboard, a lively tune wafted through the sound system completing the effect…and transporting the audience into the world of Jane Austen…
Evelyn continues playing the pianoforte for visitor Mr. Wilkins (guest star Patrick Bristow) until interrupted by the arrival of Evelyn’s mother (Lisa Fredrickson) and her younger sister (Michele Spears). “You remember our youngest, Allie?” inquires Mrs. Hampton of their guest. “Of course,” replies Mr. Wilkins, adding, “You were very small then.” “And now I’m large!” responds Allie brightly, and then goes on to inform Mr. Wilkins that Evelyn’s talent on the pianoforte was once responsible for curing an ill horse. “Play something more,” suggests Mr. Wilkins enthusiastically, “and perhaps someone in the village will be cured!”
Suddenly, Mr. Wilkins is taken with an idea. He will escort Mrs. Hampton’s daughters to London and introduce them to Lady Hendrix (Fredrickson), thus affording them the opportunity to meet marriageable young men of station.
Meanwhile, in fashionable London, the girls’ cousin Lord Richard Johnson, 4th Earl of Kent (Brian Lohmann), has welcomed Admiral Webster (Floyd VanBuskirk) into his elegant home. The Admiral, it turns out, is back from battling the French on the high seas, where he had a “near-death experience” bringing down Napoleon Bonaparte’s flagship, the Marie Twine. “Sunk it in five minutes,” boasts Admiral Webster. All of a sudden, Lord Richard has a brilliant thought. “Surely a hero of such epic proportions needs a wife of his own at this time,” he opines. “I have a cousin—most fetching—who would please your eyes even more than the sight of a sinking flagship.”
Back in the countryside, lovely young Gaby (Mollie Taxe) and her mother (Jennifer Riege) are collecting eggs from the family farm’s chicken coup. Gaby’s mum informs her daughter that as she is expecting her twelfth child, Gaby is going to “frolic among the social circle of London. And if you are lucky, you will never come back to us.”
Evelyn, Allie, and their mother have arrived at Mr. Wilkins’ London home. Sensing that her mother wishes her to wed Mr. Wilkins, Evelyn feels not at all happy to be in the big city. A marriage to Mr. Wilkins would break her heart, she tells her sympathetic sister, to which Mum replies that “Mr. Wilkins is full of money and full of fine breeding.” He’s even going to buy for Evelyn her own pianoforte! Secretly, Allie vows to find her sister the kind of young man she can truly love.
Once again in the Johnson home, Lord Richard is conversing with his younger brother Brandon (Brian Jones), who is in the market for a bride. Lord Richard offers to throw a party for his brother, to which an overjoyed Brandon replies, “That is precisely what I was going to suggest! You saved my mouth from putting forth!”
Meanwhile, Gaby has joined Evelyn and Allie in London, where Lord Richard and Admiral Webster are out for a walk through Hyde Park in an effort to help the Admiral get over his nerves. At the same time, Mr. Wilkins and Evelyn have arrived at a nearby pianoforte shop in search of just the proper spinet for him to present to her as a token of his affection. A dark, handsome young man (Nick Massouh) happens to be in the shop when Mr. Wilkins and Evelyn arrive, and when Evelyn begins to play, the young man, Barnaby Wilhelm, is entranced. Though his suggestion to join Evelyn at the piano for a duet is rebuffed, Barnaby does manage to overhear Mr. Wilkins’ address—17 Marlboro Square.
When Mrs. Hampton learns that her daughters have been invited to a party at Lord Richard’s home, she is ecstatic. “He’s an Earl!” she exclaims, but Evelyn will have none of this. “I met a man!” she confesses to her mother. “I have no idea who he is or where he comes from, but he asked me to duet!” “A lady does not duet!” Mrs. Hampton brusquely informs her daughter, but Evelyn’s enthusiasm will not be calmed. “Perhaps he will be at the dance!” a giddy Allie suggests.
Barnaby, meanwhile, is talking to his sister (Riege) about Lord Richard’s party, to which he has miraculously been invited. Miraculously, because he is, after all, but a former employee, and of low status. Never mind that, his sister tells him. “You are my one and only brother, and you are my favorite!”
The evening of the party arrives, and the guests (Evelyn, Allie, Gaby, Mrs. Hendrix, Mr. Wilcox, Admiral Webster, and Brandon) are gathered at Lord Richard’s home when Barnaby makes his entrance wearing, of all things, a cream-colored matador’s jacket. Though he is asked to remove this entirely inappropriate article of clothing, Evelyn is enchanted to meet him again just as she had hoped. When Evelyn is asked to play the pianoforte, Allie offers to dance and Gaby to sing. Though the lyrics to Gaby’s song, something about “trees in the birds,” seem a bit bizarre, Lady Hendrix is so taken by this delightful trio of young ladies that she invites them to live with her at Hillcrest Manor! Lights out. End of Act 1.
Though the first act ends on a hopeful note, the course of true love never did run smooth, and Act 2 turns out to be even more intricately plotted and hilariously performed than Act 1.
Ingeniously directed by Dan O’Connor and Paul Rogan, the ten talented cast members (drawn from an ensemble of eighteen) are improv artists at the top of their field, each one a different type and age making this the ideal ensemble to create a complete, multi-character play. Standing on opposite sides of the stage, it is the decision of each actor whom to become, when to enter, and how best to advance the plot. The cast’s powers of concentration and commitment to their roles insure that only rarely do they break character to stifle a laugh. Even that, though, can add to the evening’s delight, as when a walk in a garden prompted one of the young ladies to comment on the significance of “butterflies flying in the shape of a heart.” When her companion exclaimed, “Look! There are five of them in the shape of an arrow,” for a moment or two any attempt at maintaining a straight face was lost, and the audience laughed all the harder for it.
Making the evening even funnier were a pair of improv “accidents.”
At one point, Massouh (as Barnaby) found himself sharing the stage with Riege. His comments about her twelve children were met with exclamations of surprise from his scene partner. It turned out that Riege was playing his sister and not Gaby’s mother.
Later, when the entire cast of characters had assembled for the play’s denouement, it became clear that both Lady Hendrix and Mrs. Hampton were needed for the scene, a bit of a challenge for Fredrickson, who was playing both roles but rose to the task with some very quick entrances and exits.
The pleasure in watching a Jane Austen UnScripted play unfold ensues as much from the ability of the actors to come up with clever, unexpected dialog (Jones is particularly adept at stringing multisyllabic words together) as from those moments when their tongues get twisted in the words. The cast’s English accents are of varying levels of authenticity, but this is part of the fun, as are those moments when a perhaps not so British (or 19th Century) turn of phrase pops out or when cast members can’t decide if our heroine’s name is pronounced Evelyn (with a short “e”) or Eevelyn (as in Evelyn Waugh).
I’ve had the good fortune to attend a number of very funny comedies lately, so I can’t say for certain if Jane Austen UnScripted made me laugh louder and longer than each and every one of the others, but if it’s not absolutely the most hilarious, it’s at least a very close second. Laughter, by definition, comes from the unexpected, and what could be more unexpected that improvised plot and dialog?
Jane Austen UnScripted is ending its already extended eleven-week run, but luckily for L.A., it will be back in January. This is “must see theater” that many will want to see more than once, if only to witness these gifted improv actors create an entirely different story, all the while remaining faithful to the style and values of Jane Austen. The novelist would be pleased indeed.
Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Through February 15.
December 19, 2008
Photos: Jim Sabo