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ImproTheatre's Jane Austen Unscripted: Tonight & Tomorrow

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It's classic romantic comedy formula--Boy Meets Girl, Boy Falls for Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl--but it has its roots in the venerable tradition of BritLit icon Jane Austen, whose mere six novels continue to capture the modern imagination.

But imagine coming up with a full Austen-esque plot line, characters, witty repartee, and resolution in about 90 minutes? It's no easy feat, but for ImproTheatre's Unscripted Repertory performers (some pictured at right), it's simply what's on the bill tonight and tomorrow--the last two performances of a weekend run at the NoHo Actors Studio.

With improv, it's of course made of the moment, and while last night's hilarious performance is a thing of the past, it stands as a testament to the vast skills of the actors who fell deftly and quickly into roles on the spot. Working off an audience suggestion for a simple topic of conversation--in this case "flowers"--the troupe wove an elaborate melange of secret loves and sibling rivalries complete with Austenian touches such as mysterious letters arriving at the house, curious neighbors, dashing strangers, a parlor piano forte, and the ever-questionable suitability of suitors.

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We met the Green sisters--ice queen Anne (Kari Coleman), demure Evelyn (Jo McGinley), and dimwitted Amanda (Michele Spears)--and the men who wished to woo them, including a bumbling horticulturalist (Stephen Kearin), an heir apparent (Dan O'Connor), a man of mystery (Brian Lohmann), and a con artist (Nick Massouh). Throw in a forgetful neighbor (Brian Jones) and his daft storytelling aunt (Lisa Fredrickson), a loving father (Floyd Van Buskirk), a manipulative upper-cruster (Tracy Burns) and a would-be Vicar (Paul Rogan) for good measure and you have a heap of lovelorn folk who make the most of a stroll about the grounds or an impromptu tea dance, all with clever takes on Austen's flirtatious wordplay that often bends to be taken as witty wisdom. Highlights of the show included Fredrickson's full-throttle commitment to the prune-faced and somewhat oversexed Lady Grey, Spears' spastic skipping and mooning, Burns' conniving, and the scene saves and quick wits of O'Connor, Kearin, and Jones. As the lights dim and rise from scene to scene you have to pinch yourself to remember that these talented actors are scripting the show as they go.

Of course, as often is the case in improv, it's the flubs and goofs that get the most guffaws, and last night's show was no exception. Mangled names and memory lapses became character traits and pulled the plotline towards punchlines, much to the audience's delight. ImproTheatre's gift lies in far more than improv's expected one-liners and zingers--rather, their gift is the more subtle and complex art of storytelling in what's known as Longform improv; the group has won great international acclaim for their takes on Shakespeare, Sondheim musicals, and Tennessee Williams' drama. This is their first stab at Austen, and a worthy one at that. It is always a thrill to see talented performers (and you've probably seen these faces before on your tv or at the movies) dive headlong into the unknown and come up roses (or in last night's case the vexing "pyrocampia" flower). Although Austen's work is timeless, ImproTheatre's Austen Unscripted is by its very nature of its time; Austen would be pleased, indeed.

Jane Austen Unscripted
Saturday June 21 @ 8 p.m. & Sunday June 22 @ 3 p.m.
The NoHo Actors Studio (upstairs)
5215 Lankershim Boulevard, NoHo Arts District
Tickets: $15/Reservations: (323) 401-6162 or online

Photo via ImproTheatre