A puppet version of Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' is modest success

Intrepid performers Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers and the puppets create a replete ambience

Incorporating puppets into a dramatization of Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” may seem a bit of a stretch.

But in the hands of Box Tale Soup’s intrepid performers Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers, the puppets, along with a few modest props, create a surprisingly replete ambience of Austen’s Regency romance, playing this weekend at the Broad Stage’s Edye Theatre.

The puppets play the the subsidiary characters, supplemented by the actors’ virtuosity and the audience’s imagination.

A lighthearted parody of the gothic romances so popular at the time, Austen’s story features an unlikely “heroine,” Catherine Morland, an 18-year-old girl from modest circumstances who is invited by her wealthy neighbors to visit Bath.

While there, Catherine meets Henry Tilney and his sister, Isabella. Isabella soon becomes Catherine’s intimate friend, while Henry, a country rector and the second son of a prosperous military general, also seems quite taken with the charming country girl.

Catherine is delighted when the General proffers an invitation to Northanger Abbey, the Tilney family’s ancestral estate, but once there, she’s overcome by the sheer spookiness of her surroundings.

Steeped as she is in the sensational novels of the day, Catherine attributes the most lurid misdeeds to the Tilneys' forbidding father -- far-fetched conjectures that threaten to permanently estrange her from Henry.

No murderous monster but a venal brute nonetheless, the General is enraged to learn that Catherine is not the heiress he assumed and packs her off with unchivalrous haste. Of course, as is typical in Austen, the female protagonist finally achieves her desired marital match -- the apogee of aspirations for young women of the time.

An attractive pair, Christophers and Byrne play the young lovers while manipulating and voicing the puppets that portray the rest of the characters. Those fond of Austen's work will find this a happy visit with an old friend.

However, although undoubtedly a faithful recapitulation, this adaptation sometimes seems overly reverential, to dampening effect. Just one case in point is Henry’s subdued response to Catherine’s sensational suspicions, when his underlying anger and dismay should be more manifest, as in the novel.

With the exception of the looming, vampiric General, the puppets are also problematic. Clad in uniformly dun-colored garb, with little differentiation and definition among them, they also seem oddly generic, at least in appearance. Even if the puppets are mainstays that recur in the company's other outings, surely their costumes could more adequately convey their specific characters, from the comically overblown to the sober.

The occasional misstep, however, doesn't detract from the many pure pleasures of this gothic novelty. Byrne and Christophers formed Box Tale Soup to reinvigorate works of classical literature on a modest and portable scale. Surely, in this genuinely inventive production, they have achieved their aim.

“Northanger Abbey,” The Edye Theatre at the Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Friday, 5 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 5 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $50 to $75. (310) 434-3200. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

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