Los Angeles Theater Review: UNSCRIPTED REP (Impro Theatre at the Odyssey)

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by Tony Frankel on May 2, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

MASTERS OF AUTOSCHEDIASM

I was so blown away by Impro Theatre’s Shakespeare Unscripted that I had to check out Unscripted Rep at the Odyssey, where the inimitable company is having fun in the style of Sondheim and Williams along with Shakespeare.

After viewing Tennessee Williams Unscripted, the greatest joy occurred when my theatre-going companion stated that this company surely must have preplanned some of the show; there is no way in hell that scenes so packed with exposition and character development could have been made up before our eyes. Having seen Impro Theatre before, I assured him that the two-act play he witnessed had never been done before and will never be seen again. What he said next startled me, as I never thought to compare Unscripted Rep with any other theatrical entertainment: “That was the best thing I have ever seen at The Odyssey Theatre.” Indeed, the made-up story about two sisters and their cousin who uncover family secrets while vacationing at “Pensacola Farm” was so transporting and endearing that it warranted a second viewing which, of course, is not an option.

Unscripted Rep – Sondheim Unscripted, Williams Unscripted, Shakespeare Unscripted - A Guest Production of Impro Theatre at The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Los AngelesQuite often, the shenanigans produce hearty laughter, but zaniness took a back seat to the more dramatic proceedings; the tone was that of a very serious and masterful play by Tennessee Williams. In fact, one scene between Elliot (the quirky and eminently watchable Edi Patterson) and her 16 year-old younger sister (the ridiculously beautiful Lauren Rose Lewis) displayed such an authentic tenderness that it was deeply moving. Also gathered at this Gothic retreat were duplicitous and sex-starved Southern men (deliciously played by Brian Michael Jones and Dan O’Connor), a creepy, alligator-murderer (Paul Rogan), and a deeply troubled cousin (the spectral Jo McGinley) who meets her doom by perambulating into the swamps (it didn’t go unnoticed by Mr. O’Connor that it was odd to have a farm built on coastal swampland). The suspicious proprietor (a quick Lisa Fredrickson) never entered the scenes without a trayful of alcoholic beverages.

Unscripted Rep – Sondheim Unscripted, Williams Unscripted, Shakespeare Unscripted - A Guest Production of Impro Theatre at The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Los AngelesA clever set of rolling boxes and wooden shutters (by Caitlin Lainoff) allowed the cast to create scenarios in a bedroom, a dining room, and on a train. Sandra Burns’ costumes allowed the cast to take on whichever character they pleased: Mr. Rogan dexterously morphed from a suited, eccentric uncle to a tank-top wearing caretaker. The entire evening left me drooling and drawling.

With Sondheim Unscripted, the company came up with a concept involving an ordinary employee of a comic book store, played by Floyd Vanbuskirk, who rethinks his ordinariness after falling in love with a woman while she is buying a back issue for her abusive lawyer boyfriend. Two Superheroes – She-Man and Laser Girl – spring to life to thwart his plans, basically because they need an “ordinary guy” to complete their heroic trifecta. A subplot involved the lawyer’s legal defense of a mob family.

Unscripted Rep – Sondheim Unscripted, Williams Unscripted, Shakespeare Unscripted - A Guest Production of Impro Theatre at The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Los AngelesThe songs, both melody and lyrics, are always made up on the spot. Every once in a while the cast got in its own way by trying to accomplish too much in one song: it’s enough to establish character and plot, but the attempt to incorporate Sondheim’s trademark psychological subtext only served to muddle the musical. As sometimes happens, the cast got in over their heads with too many subplots – when that happened, some in the cast committed a major taboo of improvisation: that is the one called “denial.” If one cast member asks, for example, “What’s that elephant doing in your back pocket?” the other actor must validate the elephant’s existence. In Sondheim Unscripted, the word “no” was used far too many times: “Is that your comic book?” “No.” Dead space. “You should go after that girl!” “I can’t.” Dead space. Due to the lack of “agreement,” the show fizzled even as it held our attention. However, watching musical director Peter Smith on the piano was hands-down (if you’ll pardon the pun) the best thing in the show; his mimicry of Sondheim’s intricate rhythmic accompaniments was superb.

Unscripted Rep – Sondheim Unscripted, Williams Unscripted, Shakespeare Unscripted - A Guest Production of Impro Theatre at The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Los AngelesSo be forewarned: as successful as this troupe is with long-form improvisation, the evening you attend might be a little spooked. Even the best improvisers can find themselves lost in the labyrinth of their concocted characteristics, unable to get back on track with the story that they have invented. It may be disappointing when these amazing artists lose their way, given the nature of their art, but even when that happens, Unscripted Rep is more likely to offer fun and laughs than most other productions around town.

photos by William Adashek

Unscripted Rep
Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles
scheduled to close May 29, 2011
for tickets, visit http://www.odysseytheatre.com or call 310.477.2055

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