North Coast Repertory Theatre, to celebrate the Christmas season, is presenting several holiday-themed events throughout December. Kicking things off this month is the Impro Theatre’s tribute to Charles Dickens, Dickens UnScripted.
As the members of the improvisation company reside in Los Angeles, they are giving San Diegans a small taste of the types of shows that they put on at the Imrpro Studio. Typically, cast members perform original pieces using a few audience suggestions, and then creating every word of dialogue.
In general, Impro Theatre focuses on 12 types of themes ranging from William Shakespeare to Stephen Sondheim.
Each story is different, which gives theatregoers a reason to return often to the venue located on Vermont in downtown Los Angeles. That also goes for the performances happening over the weekend in Solana Beach.
Last Friday featured cast members, including Brian Michael Jones, Floyd VanBuskirk and Lisa Frederickson, telling a story about a physically unattractive man, Edgar Grump (co-director Paul Rogan), who lived in Victorian London. His odyssey involved surgery, an evil teacher with a cockney accent (Ryan Smith) and a potential romance with a blind woman, Anna (Kelly Holden Bashar).
Except for the beginning of both acts, audience participation was surprisingly low on Friday night. Instead of relying on suggestions for each scene, the ensemble started by asking people what they like most about Christmas. Eggnog was picked, and the actors quickly started the tale of Mr. Grump.
Dickens UnScripted provided several amusing sequences as the cast improvised the script on the spot. This sometimes resulted in overlapping dialogue and one particular hilarious moment when Jones broke character laughing after a bizarre twist that revolved around eye donations. While these elements could be distracting in a traditional play, the unplanned moments added to the fun and charm of the evening.
Many of the jokes came from the Dickensian situations and characters that Mr. Grump encountered. Books from the author weren’t explicitly alluded to in both acts, and I didn’t catch any references to a “A Christmas Carol.”
And while Ebenezer Scrooge might not have been brought up by name, various sequences still featured parallels to classic novels such as “Oliver Twist,” “Great Expectations” and “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.”
Despite this being a comedy-focused occasion, everyone onstage created a well-told narrative that didn’t ignore story structure in the program, which ran just under two hours. Emotional investment was certainly earned for Mr. Grump’s fate.
Given the spontaneous approach to each evening, it’s difficult to properly appreciate the efforts of directors Rogan and Brian Lohmann. They deserve credit for putting together an environment that allows the actors to play and be creative.
Players involved with Dickens Unscripted, such as Bashar, Jones, Smith, VanBuskirk and Fredrickson were well cast in their roles, although Rogan stood out for leading the events that unfolded. Without ever becoming too dramatic, he was very empathetic in his portrayal of the hapless Englishman.
Adding a sense of professionalism to the staging were Ryan Ford’s lighting and Alex Caan’s audio. Ford’s visuals used gothic imagery, and the music that Caan selected accompanied the action in a seamless manner.
Dickens UnScripted might be ending tonight, but you can still see the troupe in Jane Austen UnScripted at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica December 15-18. Based on the large attendance and big laughs that the Impro Theatre artists got on opening night, a return to North Coast Rep should hopefully be a big possibility.