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Theater review

My dear friend:

Last night, with some trepidation, I attended a theatrical event that may also interest you, given our shared fascination with the writings of Miss Jane Austen.

As you know, in recent years adding to the canon of Miss Austen has been a booming cottage industry. Authors have penned sequels and prequels to her novels, based detective stories on them, dramatized them for stage and screen. And let us not even speak of those unnervingly popular zombie and vampire treatments of the Austen oeuvre!

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I daresay that is why the prospect of “Austen Translation,” a partly improvised show inspired by her novels, gave me pause. I shuddered to imagine cheap laughs and crude audience suggestions casting a pall over Miss Austen’s sparkling prose.

Yet when I learned the prolific Seattle improv franchise Jet City Improv was collaborating on “Austen Translation” with Book-It Repertory Theatre, curiosity compelled me to attend. Book-It has, indeed, given us felicitous stage versions of such Austen classics as “Sense and Sensibility” and “Persuasion.”

I was quickly set at ease when in the first moments of “Austen Translation,” Jane herself (Laura Turner) appeared with quill pen in hand and a twinkle in her eye.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” she recited.

With that opening sentence from “Pride and Prejudice,” we were invited to help create a well-laid story about — well, what are all Jane Austen novels about? A young, bright, good-hearted girl from a genteel family of modest means must find a proper mate, one who will keep her in style but, she hopes fervently, will also capture her heart.

Garbed in empire-waist gowns and cutaway jackets, the plucky rotating cast of “Austen Translation,” under Andrew McMasters’ direction, sustained the manners and demeanor of Jane’s epoch while weaving audience prompts into a quite amusing, verbally nimble hybrid of several of her novels.

The night I attended, Kate Jaeger’s wise, clever heroine Violet had a yen for physics, and for her well-born childhood chum, Clifford (Chris Allen). She gracefully endured pressure from her hilariously glum mother (Mandy Price, a sort of Kristen Wiig in a shawl) to wed a most vile minister (Graham Tordoff), whose idea of fun was building a barn outfitted like a cathedral.

But of course, she would never submit to such a union. Violet and the other single damsels, including her charmingly dotty sister Eleanor (Molly Arkin), eventually found their true mates, with interludes for impromptu songs, picnics and a spot of tea. (We would have loved to commune over a pot of excellent Earl Grey and some crumpets, during the interval.)

A hearty laugh was had by all. And without a zombie or a vampire in sight, or a profanity uttered, “Austen Translation” demonstrated that decorum and witty repartee can still be very funny. As Jane once delicately mused, “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

Misha Berson:

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