The wild and unpredictable style of collaborative stage comedy called “improv” may not be the first thing one thinks of in connection with the great 19th-century writer Jane Austen, but on Friday-Saturday, March 27-28, the Los Angeles–based Impro Theatre intends to change that. Starting with suggestions from the audience, each night this talented and experienced crew of professional actors will weave together an original 90-120 minute stage drama using the settings, situations, and plot devices associated with such classic Austen novels as Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. Although these improvised adaptations of Austen lack the narrative voice that’s among the most distinctive features of her work, the pleasure resulting from seeing these relationships evolve spontaneously makes for a good consolation. You won’t be hearing anyone speak that most memorable of opening lines — “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” — but you will see a single man of good fortune, or three, and you will be able to judge with your own eyes how much in want of a wife he really is, or whether any sensible woman would want him.
Austen UnScripted codirector Dan O’Connor feels that the approximately 70 performances that the group has done, often at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, have honed their approach to the point that even with “an A, a B, and a C story going” the actors can still hold an audience. When the show begins, the actors onstage don’t yet know what role they will be playing. “The characters are iconic,” said O’Connor, “but we don’t know who’s going to be what.” As in more traditional improvisation exercises, much depends on the performer’s ability to say yes to whatever his or her cast mates suggest. O’Connor remembers an evening when he entered confidently, assuming the romantic lead, only to have the rest of the cast greet him with a chorus of, “The vicar is here!”
“The Regency wardrobe and set that we use really help,” said O’Connor, adding that “it’s all about rereading the novels and then going onstage intending to find ways to be real in these roles.” When asked about how the group approaches a goofy character like Mr. Collins, the inept initial suitor of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, O’Connor said, “Mr. Collins could be a caricature onstage, but we would rather keep him real.” What Austen really has going for her, once you’ve gotten past the outfits and the estates and the class-consciousness and the love language, is an unerring sense of social comedy. No other writer in the history of English literature holds quite the same reassuring steady grasp on what makes us ridiculous, and therefore renders us somehow loveable.
But will it be funny? This can only be answered in person, but the odds are in UnScripted’s favor. Both O’Connor and Paul Rogan, the Englishman who cofounded the project, are excellent improvisers, and, perhaps more importantly, they are ardent Janeites. Their craft in the service of Austen’s genius promises an exciting adventure.
Jane Austen UnScripted is at the New Vic (33 W. Victoria St.) Friday-Saturday, March 27-28, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call (805) 965-5400 or visit improvcomedysb.com.