Imagine that it is December 1803, and you are among the guests invited to join the Austen family and their friends as the writer Jane, that famed observer of both sense and sensibility, is to have her first novel published. The Austens who have gathered at the home of family friends the Bigg-Withers act, sing, and recite letters and poetry in celebration of both her imminent success and the holidays. Except one does not even have to imagine this scenario, so lovingly reenacted as Theater Ten Ten’s “Innocent Diversions: A Christmas Entertainment With Jane Austen and Friends,” directed by Lynn Marie Macy, who also wrote and adapted this show. Macy treats the audience to a revue in which various cast members, in character, reenact Austen’s early writings.
Karen Eterovich makes for a fine Austen, carefully delivering Austen's often locquacious dialogue, and meshing with a host of colorful co-stars. Eterovich is matched by an equally talented ensemble, including David Arthur Bachrach as Austen’s father (who nimbly recites her “Verses to Rhyme With ‘Rose’”), Eyal Sherf as the slightly bumbling (in true Austen-fashion) Mr. Harris Bigg-Wither, Talaura Harms as Madame Anne Lefroy, and Chelsea Jo Pattison, as Fanny, the youngest Austen in attendance. Pattison was a marvel in each of her “scenes,” demonstrating wonderful poise, elocution, and full of pep. Her bio lists Diversions as Ms. Pattison’s Ten Ten debut, having recently hailed from the mid-West. Let’s hope she stays here for a very long time.
Macy’s writing perfectly captures Austen’s humor and understanding of the way both men and women and families relate to each other. Works of hers include "The Beautiful Cassandra," "A Letter from a lady in love to her confidante," and "On a Headache." However, the smaller vignettes succeed far more than Macy’s longer ones. A performance entitled “The History of England,” which features the entire cast reciting trivial bits regarding the English monarchy may be historically educational, but it goes on too long and provides no additional commentary on any of the characters. There are two other longer vignettes that feature the entire cast – “The Visit” and “Jack and Alice” – which start promisingly but overstay their welcome. Additionally, Esther David’s line readings were sometimes a little too rushed, and combined with her accent, caused her to garble some of her dialogue.
The staging also leaves something to be desired. Set in Ten Ten’s basement, with just some folding chairs positioned a little too far from the front of the stage, Macy’s acoustics were less than ideal. Sound traveled in odd directions, and some quieter moments failed to be fully absorbed by the audience.
Nonetheless, Diversions is mostly just that – wonderful, light fun for audiences of any age. I was also impressed by Deborah Wright Houston's period costumes, which could have easily come straight from the recent film Becoming Jane. Minor production bugs aside, Diversions remains a great holiday treat, with some wonderful performances. It is yet another reminder of why Austen is one for the ages.