The improv geniuses who brought us Jane Austen UnScripted make a welcome return with their latest concoction—Tennessee Williams UnScripted. Like its predecessors, which spoofed Austen, Shakespeare, and Sondheim, Tennessee Williams UnScripted is a two-act comedy completely improvised in the style of its titular writer. Because this is Williams, author of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Glass Menagerie, the director’s note promises that the only thing the cast knows in advance is that “some poetic sensitivity…will be crushed by brutal forces from the outside world.” The rest is up to the imagination of the oh-so-creative improvisers.
Opening night’s play, which featured a rotating cast of seven of Impro Theatre’s eighteen company members, was more Hot Tin Roof than Menagerie, as it centered on the family of wealthy Chance Douvetine (Floyd VanBuskirk in Big Daddy mode). Chance’s wife Grace (Tracy Burns), has a secret (don’t they all?) involving the young, prematurely deceased Tommy. The Douvetines’ daughter Ellen (Michele Spears) finds herself torn between her love for Tommy’s younger brother Jackson (Dan O’Connor), a recent college graduate and soon-to-be high school biology teacher, and her parents’ first choice for her, Hunt Bullware (Brian Jones), a law school grad returning now to Dunstonville “all lawyered up” and driving a “pinkish yellow Cadillac.” Meanwhile, Ellen’s nymphomaniacal sister Celia (Jo McGinley) has set her eye on both Jackson and Hunt with no particular preference. She is, after all, a girl who’s “seen the back seat of many a Cadillac and … torn the upholstery from here to Duluth.” Completing the cast of characters is Jackson’s father (Paul Rogan), a man who enjoys telling jokes about penguins standing on frozen beer bottles … and has a teensy-weensy problem with self-censorship, as when he tells Grace, “Your breasts look lovely in that dress.”
Each evening of improvised theater begins with a request for a word or two from the audience—which will then be worked into the story as often as possible. For Jane Austen UnScripted, the audience was asked to name a quality which a young lady who wishes to be accomplished would want to have. Tennessee Williams’ opening night audience was asked to name an animal and a month of the year. The responses: a goat and July. Thus, the play was set in summertime (when else?) and goats were occasionally worked into the conversation, as when Ellen Douvetine commented that “There are certain things in my life that couldn’t be worse even if they were goat feed” or when Grace explains away a lie she’s told by saying that she did it just “to get Chance’s goat up.”
Opening night’s play included flashbacks, one of them of Ellen’s late boyfriend, “that Bertram boy,” who burned to death in a cornfield. (“That’s why they call it Popcorn Hill.”) There were also several improvised soliloquies, each spoken to the audience under a single spotlight, in one of which Celia recalled the trauma she suffered walking in on boyfriend Tommy and her mother in flagrante delicto. (Flashbacks and soliloquies are likely part of every performance, with Ruben Vernier (on lighting and sound) always ready with a just-right sound or light cue.)
Much of the hilarity of Impro Theatre’s plays comes from the outrageous dialog which just seems to pop out of the cast’s mouths. Here are some examples from last night:
•Jackson explaining that his future as a college football star was destroyed when “I stepped into a gopher hole and cut my ankle right in half.”
•Grace instructing the flirtatious Celia to get away from the window and stop making eyes at the gentlemen below. “You’re not a puppy in a pet store window.”
•Chance ordering Celia to stop dancing to “hoochie koochie music,” then telling his wife that Celia’s “got that look in her eye again. Be sure to bolt the door.”
•Celia exhibiting her loonier side during a drive with Hunt in his Cadillac convertible by telling him nonchalantly, “Oh, I’m not worried about my hair getting mussed. I want it to blow right off my head. I prefer things that blow the back of my head right off.”
Naturally, there are plot twists and revelations galore. It turns out that Grace had an affair with Jackson’s late brother Tommy (“Well, he did do a good job around the yard with yard work.”). Later, Celia causes the car crash which kills both her and Hunt by holding his foot down on the accelerator with her own. (Insert sound cue provided by offstage cast members: goats baaing as the car crashes.) Jackson and Ellen are revealed to be half-brother and sister (What would Williams be without a hint of incest?), though fortunately it turns out to be merely Grace’s invention to “get Chance’s goat up.”
Luckily for Jackson and Ellen there is the possibility of escape. As the lights dim on the Douvetines, he tells her, “I’m taking you out of here. These people are crazy.”
The key to the success of Impro Theatre’s adlibbed plays is the cast’s absolute familiarity with (in the words of director Brian Lohman) the writer’s “dramatic devices, archetypes and poetry.” They then let loose their imaginations and the rest is magic.
There is much skillful miming of “props”—glasses, bottles, cigars, and (in the case of last night’s play), an invisible drink cart on casters which characters occasionally had difficulty finding—to audience amusement.
Sound/lighting man Vernier, executing Trefoni Michael Rizzi’s lighting design, deserves much credit for knowing precisely when to fade out on a scene, when to make lighting switches for flashbacks or monologs, or when to insert a sound cue (fireworks, a house on fire, etc.) Rizzi’s set design (louvered doors, white curtains, and some modular cubes with upholstered tops) allows the cast to improvise scene changes at a moment’s notice. All the modular units come together to make a bed, for example.
One Tennessee Williams theme which was conspicuously absent last night was the repressed (or vaguely alluded to) homosexuality of characters like Cat On A Hot Tin Roof’s Brick or The Glass Menagerie’s Tom or the late husband of Streetcar’s Blanche. At one point, it seemed perhaps that at one time there had been something going on between Jackson and Hunt, but nothing was ever made of this. Hopefully, future performances won’t heterosexualize the very gay Tennessee.
Other than that, Tennessee Williams UnScripted is (as Jane Austen UnScripted was before it) an absolutely hilarious evening of comedy, the best part of which is that you can go back again and again and see a different show every time. (I’d guess that repeat visits are frequent, and only a very full reviewing calendar prevents me from returning multiple times.)
I can’t wait to see what Impro Theatre has up its sleeve next!
March 20, 2009
A return visit to Tennessee Williams Unscripted proved that yes, indeed, every performance is completely new and original, all the while maintaining the T. Williams spirit. This performance featured five fantastic returnees from Opening Night and two equally stellar cast additions. (Note: Tennessee Williams Unscripted II had a refreshing dash of repressed/latent homosexuality, or at least of man-to-man proximity in an enclosed space.)
This time, the month is April and the animal is a porcupine.
Newlyweds Shep and Caroline are vacationing in the northeast corner of Arkansas. “What could possibly go wrong?” Caroline is asking when a pair of rain-drenched strangers arrive. It’s Charlie aka Gopher and his wife Mary Ann (a hint of madness in her eyes), who’ve had some car trouble and need a place to dry off. Accompanying them is Charlie’s foul-mouthed father, who shouts at his son, “You aren’t selling my house!” (Property means a lot down South, as you may recall from Gone With The Wind.)
Meanwhile, Shep’s sister Luellen and former beau Jimmy are both back home in Hackensack, he after four years of college in New York City. “I like to think of myself as a porcupine,” she tells him suggestively, and explains why. (It has something to do with her enjoyment of “pricking” men.)
Back at Shep and Caroline’s vacation cabin, Gopher-Charlie expresses his disgust at his father’s always praising others instead of him. Replies Daddy, “Maybe I’ll start treating you like a man when you prove to me that you are one. It’s been four years! Where is my grandson?” “That is not my fault!” responds Gopher-Charlie, leading us to wonder if perhaps Gopher-Charlie might have a secret or two hidden in his closet.
Later, Shep and Gopher-Charlie find themselves seated a bit “too close for comfort” (for Shep at least) in Gopher-Charlie’s car, which Shep is trying to start. “I keep finding disappointment in women,” complains Gopher-Charlie. “I’m a man and I’m going to bite off that carrot tonight,” responds Shep, though apparently it is not Gopher-Charlie’s carrot he’s referring to, but a metaphorical one having to do with Caroline.
When Luellen and Jimmy arrives at the cabin, we learn that Luellen has already destroyed Caroline’s sister Karen and that siblings Shep and Luellen have a “very close relationship.” (A hint of incest is always welcome in a Tennessee Williams play.)
As the plot continues its twists and turns, Mary Ann is declared “nuttier than a nut job,” and in a dramatic final fade-out, we hear the words: “Hey, look! The woods are on fire, in the rain.”
What will those Impro Theatre geniuses think of next?
Shep: Nick Massouh
Caroline: Jo McGinley
Gopher-Charlie: Brian Jones
Mary Ann: Tracy Burns
Big Daddy: Floyd VanBuskirk
Luellen: Lauren Lewis
Jimmy: Dan O’Connor
April 4, 2009
Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.