Un-Scripted Theater's Improvised Dickens Musical Is Hard Times Indeed

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​Here's a testament to the make-it-up-as-it-goes ethos of improv. If a show isn't going anywhere, really, the cast might have it in themselves to fix it as they go.

Such a phenomenon occurred last weekend at a performance of Un-Scripted Theater's A Tale of Two Genres, and ambitious -- perhaps too much so -- improvised cross-genre Charles Dickens musical. The show is pitched as a mash-up: The urchins-and-mustaches London of Dickens meets some story genre the audience chooses -- say "a Tarantino heist," the Un-Scripted website suggests. That combination then meets on-the-spot musical theater, with the resulting show meant to be a full coherent narrative rather than a successions of gags, allusions, and the usual improv dada.

There's no need for improvised Dickens be so complicated, of course. Up through, say, Dombey & Son, all of Dickens was improvised, a carnival of caricatures and melodrama, of comic flights and weepy sentiment and social outrage doled out in weekly or monthly parcels with little regard for the broader narrative shape. When the sales flagged on Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens chucked his vague plan and sent the novel's hero to America -- an in-the-moment inspiration that goes on for a couple of hundred pages.

This inventive brio was utterly lacking in the first half Saturday's Un-Scripted performance.

At the start, the cast solicited suggestions for the kinds of stories audiences might like to see spliced with Dickens. On Saturday, one guy hollered Aliens, and one woman called out The Little Mermaid, and the cast, led by Mandy Khoshnevisan, settled on the latter. This seemed promising.

But then Khoshnevisan convened a brief discussion of the themes of The Little Mermaid (longing, sacrifice, two different worlds), announced with no slight giddiness that those themes reflect the struggle Dickens' characters face against the Victorian class system, and then declared -- to the audience's clear disappointment -- that Un-Scripted would be working from the Hans Christian Anderson tale rather than the Disney movie, so no talking animals.

Dickens never did talking animals, either. But he did kill a character through spontaneous combustion.

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But Un-Scripted wouldn't deign to offer such lowbrow entertainment. Instead, they whipped up a go-nowhere narrative about a lovelorn duke in a seaside town falling in love with a wealthy young woman of vague parentage. Actually, "narrative" might be too strong a word for this, as narrative implies incidents, with one thing leading to another and all that. This was more of a vamp: a couple of notes struck and repeated again and again.

For what it's worth, the duke first met his paramour while pretending to be a commoner for some reason; she, likewise, was playacting like she was not due an inheritance. Then, for the better part of an hour, Un-Scripted could come up with nothing for them to do but moon at each other and toe the surf while a series of narrators had a go at improvising faux-Dickens. They offered halting reams of the stuff, usually vagaries about the sea as a symbol for life's passages and mostly studded with awkward pauses.

Each time the lovers themselves seemed to be on the verge of saying something engaging, the narrators would interrupt. I have rarely seen members of a professional-level improv troupe step on each other's lines this much. Nor have I have seen one stage a long-form show with such an uncertain tone: Was this a serious love story for the ages? Was this a dry burlesque of the same? Were the banalities being spoken meant to be parodies of banalities?

Whatever they were aiming for, the glum realism stripped all the hammy joy out of Dickens, all the magic and tragedy out of Anderson, and all the what-next? pleasures out of improv storytelling.

Occasionally, the lovers would gaze at the horizon and improvise a verse or two about gazing at the horizon. Or, to break up the monotony, these songs would sometimes be about staring at the sea, instead. All of these were mopey and unmemorable, and most featured a second cast member eventually improvising a second weak melody in kinda/sorta counterpoint. To signal that a song was nearing its end, the cast members would repeat whatever words they had already been singing, but now a lot louder.

Fortunately, in the spirit of Dickens sending Chuzzlewit abroad, the troupe eventually corrected itself. After intermission, the members dedicated themselves to story, momentum, and invention. Merrill Gruver killed as a villainess in the night's first truly enjoyable scene. The narrators stopped smothering the actors, so actual scenes began to break out, with give and take and bursts of charm. Best of all, the gifted Clay Robeson, who played the duke, started doing double duty as narrator, and he demonstrated a flair for the Dickensian storytelling that his predecessors hadn't managed. His words flowed, and they were stamped with real wit.

By the end, the company had roused itself. Instead of trying to make refined art in the spirit of our most unrefined great novelist, they gave into amusing cliches: a scheme, an arranged marriage, a goofy duel. None of it was as entertaining as mermaids or spontaneous combustion might have been, but at least -- at long last -- it was something.

A Tale of Two Genres runs through Dec. 21 at stage two of SF Playhouse , 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Visit www.un-scripted.com.

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Follow Alan Scherstuhl on Twitter at @studiesincrap, SF Weekly's Exhibitionist blog at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.


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San Francisco Playhouse

450 Post, San Francisco, CA

Category: General

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