Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Austen Translation

If you know me, you know that I love Jane Austen.* Even if you don't know me or Jane Austen, you probably know that her works are something of a pop culture cash cow. I have mixed feelings about this. Sometimes I take a purist "don't mess with Jane" attitude, but sometimes I willingly buy into it. I mean, I own a modern-day Pride and Prejudice movie made by Mormons which I have watched more times than I'd like to admit. There is a right way and a wrong way to mess with Jane, and I'm going to lecture you on it now.

Last Sunday, my roommate and I decided that we wanted to enjoy all the fun parts of the Super Bowl (snacks, spending time with friends, sitting around in oversized shirts, Beyonce) but skip the boring parts (football). So we bought some food, rented some Friends (the TV show, not the social concept), put on some Destiny's Child hits, and danced around in our favorite dumpy clothing (for me it was a gigantic shirt with raccoons on it). Our video store rents everything 2 for 1 so we had to get another show or movie. I advocated for Lost in Austen a miniseries in which a modern day fan of Jane Austen finds herself transported to the world of Pride and Prejudice. I thought it might be fun.

It turned out to be pretty unwatchable. The main character was unpleasant and obnoxious and as she wreaked havoc in the P&P world, I just got more and more disgusted.

Her period-inappropriate bangs were particularly grating

I resolved to give it a full hour, but only made it 40 minutes. I then tried to skip ahead and see if it got better, but instead ended up at a point where Jane was miserably married to Mr. Collins and Bingley was running off with Lydia. Ugh. Bleh.

Strangely, in the same week, I had a second opportunity to be entertained by the mangling of Miss Austen. Local theater company Jet City Improv is donating something to the museum collection, and the guy facilitating the donation told me about their latest "improvised play" called Austen Translation. It sounded intriguing, so on Friday I went.

Photo from the Jet City Improv website

There was a narrator and every actor had an assigned first name, but how they were related to each other, their social status, and who falls in love with whom was all made up that night.

It was awesome.

My night was the tale of Elinor Quackenbush, who was courted by new-in-town clergyman Frederick Fredericks and local braggart Walter Cavindish. Scenes were regularly stolen by her dim-witted twin sister Harriet, and elder sister Violet who was of "a sickly constitution and often near death." In the second act, Violet kept appearing with new arm-slings and eyepatches, and when Elinor said something particularly cruel to her she ran off stage sobbing "You know I'm allergic to my own tears!" It really looked like Elinor was falling for Mr. Thomas, but after a twin-based mistaken identity marriage proposal, Thomas and Harriet ended up together and Mr. Cavindish made a surprisingly charming declaration of love ("All my life I've known I was better than everyone else, but that changed when I met you"). It was ridiculous yet satisfying at the same time.

Austen Translation was more irreverent with Jane's work than Lost in Austen, yet somehow it was way better.  I think Lost in Austen went wrong because it messed with things that make Pride and Prejudice good in the first place. Watching the story unfold incorrectly because Elizabeth Bennett has been replaced by Annoying McStupidBangs wasn't fresh or exciting, it was just sad. But Austen Translation poked fun at Austen tropes while creating something new. It was goofy, awkward, romantic, funny, and exciting because no one knew exactly where it was going.

I'll leave you with one of the best "yep, this is improvised" moments from the show. The characters we had already met were going to church, where they were encountering people who weren't yet identified.

Un-introduced male character: I find these meetings so uncomfortable. I hope I can say as little as possible.
Second un-introduced male character: Are you going to start the sermon soon?

Apparently next month they are making up a Gilbert & Sullivan opera. YES.

*I should get points for resisting the urge to start this post with "It is the truth universally awknowledged..."

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