Los Angeles Theater Review: NORTHANGER ABBEY (Broad Stages in Santa Monica)

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by Paul Birchall on December 13, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

JANE AND HER PUPPETS

The works of Jane Austen are delightful – and so are puppets.  So, when you hear that this adaptation of Austen’s classic satire of gothic literature, Northanger Abbey, is actually performed by two actors, wielding seven puppets – well, what is not to like?

NORTHANGER ABBEY - Box Tale Soup.

If the notion of combining Jane Austen with puppetry at first seems a bit of a mismatch, you can absolutely rest assured that the stagecraft here is so imaginative that you’ll find yourself wondering why all of Jane Austen isn’t so cleverly reinvented – why not Mansfield Park with gymnasts, for instance, or Sense and Sensibility with semaphore code?

Box Tale Soup LOGOThis thoroughly charming production from the delightfully named, British-based, Box Tale Soup Theatre Company is the beguiling love child of performer/creators Antonia Christophers and Noel Byrne, who assay all the characters in Austen’s novel, assisted by seven puppets which they themselves manipulate.  Christophers herself plays the novel’s heroine, Catherine Morland, a lovely teenage girl who’s prone to imaginative flights of fancy.  Byrne portrays the dashing, charismatic Henry Tilney, the handsome man Catherine falls in love with during a fortnight’s visit to Bath.  The two performers also handle the remaining characters, all portrayed by a collection of puppets whose broadness underscores the intriguing theme that Catherine and Tilney are the only real creatures in a world of artifice and contrivance.

The beautifully minimalist puppets are all similar looking – mostly round-faced muppets with wide jaws, buggy eyes, and paper mâché brown wigs – but all are given unique and dynamic personalities by their handlers, Christophers and Byrne.  During Catherine’s visit to Bath, her faithless close friend Isabella is a vivacious force of NORTHANGER ABBEY - Box Tale Soupflattery and treacherous insincerity, while Isabella’s brother Thorpe is a ferocious, immature boor.  Henry’s father, the terrifying General Tilney, who Catherine believes might just have murdered his wife, is compellingly portrayed as a huge floating stick puppet resembling Vincent Price by way of Smaug the Dragon.

The staging’s very simplicity at the Broad crafts a wonderfully intimate mood – and Christophers’ lovely fluttery turn as Catherine, and Byrne’s slyly sardonic performance as Tilney, are funny and richly romantic.  Christophers does a particularly effective job of depicting Catherine’s silly gullibility, which is rendered with as much affection as ridicule.  Ultimately, the dynamic force propelling the production remains the sublimely witty writing of Jane Austen, whose text and dialogue are mostly performed verbatim, allowing the book’s intrinsic humor, humanity, and irony to come across fully intact.

photos courtesy of the Broad

Northanger Abbey
Box Tale Soup
The Edye Theatre at the Broad Stage
1310 11th St. in Santa Monica
Fri at 8; Sat at 5 & 8; Sun at 2 & 5
scheduled to end on December 14, 2014
for tickets, call 310.434.3200 or visit www.thebroadstage.com

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