Tennessee Williams UnScripted

LOS ANGELES TIMES – CRITIC’S CHOICE!

Reviewed By: Charlotte Stoudt
April 16, 2009

“Tennessee Williams UnScripted at Theatre Asylum”

Blanche DuBois depended on the kindness of strangers; in “Tennessee Williams UnScripted,” her creator does too. Impro Group is extending its run of improvised plays in the style of the Southern Gothic dramatist. Each performance is a completely different show, sparked by audience members suggesting a month of the year and an animal. Last Saturday at Theatre Asylum, “February” and “polar bear” inspired a fevered saga about two families connected by lust and property. (This is the South, after all.)

Salome (Michele Spears) and Cletis (Brian Lohmann, who also directs) host a “beach picnic” in their greenhouse on a chilly February afternoon for fragile beauty Diane (Jo McGinley) and her ex-con husband, Regis (Stephen Kearin). But it’s a last supper of sorts: While feeding roast chicken to the greenhouse’s carnivorous plants, Cletus announces that their ancestral home is facing foreclosure. Meanwhile, neighboring scion Twitter (Dan O’Connor) romances Salome’s discontented sister (Tracy Burns), fueling the rancor of his Big Daddy, the Rev. Stufflebeam (Floyd Van Buskirk). Sordid revelations, fresh corn bread and lyrical expressions of heartbreak abound.

Christopher Durang’s “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls” definitively proved how susceptible Williams’ overripe world is to parody. But what’s fresh about “UnScripted” is the way it evokes the playwright’s distinctive sensibility without lapsing into easy satire. The best moments — like Diane’s hushed confession that she seeks advice from a painting of a cat named Princess — manage to be simultaneously funny, moving and absolutely in keeping with Williams’ thematics.

McGinley and Kearin were particularly graceful — imagine “Glass Menagerie’s” Laura Wingfield hooking up with Stanley Kowalski’s more reflective brother. As the reticent son who has yet to crawl out from under his father, O’Connor played it blissfully straight, giving the story some actual stakes; he was counterbalanced by the giddy Spears, whose hormonal Southern hostess repeatedly brought down the house.

Toward the end of the second act, the demands of narrative resolution took some of the air out of the improv, and things turned pretty soapy. A minor quibble. Impro Theatre’s considerable agility and its infectious sense of play makes you want to go back again to see what else this group can conjure next out of Williams’ high humidity.

“Tennessee Williams UnScripted,” Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m.
Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 31. $20. (800) 838-3006. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

LA WEEKLY – CRITIC’S PICK!

Reviewed By:  Steven Leigh Morris

“GO!” The audiences tosses in a couple of suggestions at the start of the show, from which Theater Impro spins a full-length improvised drama in the style of Tennessee Williams. Clearly the types are pre-set. Floyd Van Buskirk’s “Daddy” is a compendium of Night of the Iguana’s ex-Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s Big Daddy. Director Brian Lohmann’s Marquis is a flat-footed, slightly neurotic fellow tossed out of service in WWII by a 4F army classification. His withering self-respect gets crushed beneath the boot of Buddy (Dan O’Connor), home from the service and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. There’s an off-stage Veteran’s Day Parade for atmosphere (one of the audience suggestions was “November,” so there you go.) Tenderly comedic performances also by Jo McKinley as the repressed Widow Oleson and by Tracy Burns as the town slut Loretta, and especially by Lisa Fredrickson as the smart, aging romantic, Charlene. Is there any hope of enduring romance in this isolated mushpot of Williams’ universe? The company guides the drama into a savvy bitter-sweet resolution. This is a tougher challenge than the company’s prior effort, Jane Austen UnScripted, because the types of repression that form the essences of the comedy are comparatively languid in Williams, whereas the Austen sendup sprung from the starched collars and feelings that couldn’t be expressed – because that would have been impolite. Williams’ characters say what’s on the mind, usually two or three times in various poetical incarnations: That’s the detail that these actors nail on the head. Once that joke has arrived, the challenge is to avoid making a glib mockery of Williams’ drawling explications and the sometimes ham-fisted poetry. It’s a trap the company studiously avoids, so that the event lingers somewhere between satire and homage. It’s a very smart choice. Nice cameo also by Nick Massouh.

BACKSTAGE WEST

Reviewed by Jennie Webb
April 1, 2009

Faded beauties haunted by the betrayals of their youth, passionless marriages held together by sheer desperation, and wounded souls hungering for a taste of the love they once had. Drink up: It’s Tennessee Williams at his most ridiculous, sucked dry by several very funny actors pulling out all their improv stops.

Directed by Brian Lohmann, a rotating cast of performers has a grand old time creating an evening of Southern indulgence. Working with stylish, versatile set pieces by Trefoni Michael Rizzi, at their disposal is every character, every plot point, every forbidden transgression the iconic playwright ever explored. Onstage we could find a pair of damaged sisters navigating their mother’s legacy within themselves while discussing the dirtying of party dresses (a charming Tracy Burns and Michele Spears, delightfully manic). Or a bullying vacuum cleaner salesman (Lohmann) trying his hand at grief counseling in a hotel room with the town’s elusive widow (Lisa Fredrickson). Or a fresh young student of “butlery” (Brian Jones), looking for a place in the world, steering clear of the brooding, misunderstood Franklin Sinclair (Dan O’Connor). Or not. It’s all quite entertaining, prompting plenty of laughs. Sure, there are hits and misses in some of the choices the clever actors make, but it’s all part of the fun. Although the evening is remarkably smooth, the unscripted construction is the draw here, and we like it when the seams show. The most elegant ball gowns are often like that.

STAGE SCENE LA

Reviewed By: Steven Stanley
March 20, 2009

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 Theatre Impro’s eighteen company members, was more Hot Tin Roof than Menagerie, as it centered on the family of wealthy Chance Douvetine (Floyd Van Buskirk 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 Theatre Impro’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 Theatre Impro’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.” Each company member knows precisely which Williams character type he or she will be embodying, and each suits that particular archetype to a T. 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 Theatre Impro has up its sleeve next!

PRESS & REVIEWS

“Very funny…Charming…Remarkably smooth.” – Backstage West Continue reading

“The most brainy, witty, dexterous, side-splitting comedy you’re likely to see all year.” – San Diego News Network.com Continue reading

“One of the funniest evenings in town…An amazing comedy troupe spins an entire play into comedy gold right before your eyes.” – Los Angeles Times Magazine Continue reading

“GO. The wit, charm, energy and creativity on display are delightful and entertaining.” – LA Weekly Continue reading

“These angels with dirty faces play well with pulp.” -Los Angeles Times Continue reading

“The evening’s humor derives from a savvy and seasoned ensemble who specialize in fashioning a unique, full-length play for each performance.” – LA Weekly Pick Of The Week Continue reading