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The reign of Jane

New Zealand performer parodies the beloved world created by author Austen

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Penny Ashton is still feeling the heat from the Jane fever that swept the literary world last year on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen's global brand is booming and Ashton, who debuted her one-woman musical homage Promise and Promiscuity here at the 2013 fringe festival, is repeating it again this year.

"I'm striking while the bonnet is hot," cracks the New Zealand performer/writer with a laugh.

The 40-year-old Kiwi just completed a 8,000-kilometre, six-week-long tour of New Zealand and returns to the Canadian Prairies for do-overs of Promise and Promiscuity at both the West End Cultural Centre and in Edmonton, before heading to the English town of Bath in September for the 10-day Jane Austen Festival.

"It's going to be like Star Trek for girls," says Ashton recently during an interview. "They put on balls and get dressed up in their finery. Janeites (as Austen devotees are called) really love it."

Maybe Ashton will be the belle of the ball when she is announced as the fifth great niece of Thomas Langlois Lefroy, an Irish politician who had a flirtation with Austen. The English author mentioned Tom twice in letters to her elder sister Cassandra.

"He is also touted as the inspiration for (Pride and Prejudice's) Mr. Darcy," says the comedian, who just discovered this previously unknown branch of her family tree. "It makes me feel more connected. It might have helped getting me into the Jane Austen Festival."

Before her Bath-time, Ashton says she will have to hit the six Austen novels to do further research so she won't be stumped by know-it-all Janeophiles. She already been tested by members of the Jane Austen Society of North America challenging her information and wasn't unmasked as fraud.

"These people know all the quotes. I have 33 of her lines in my show," says Ashton, who gave a lecture on Austen at the University of British Columbia and will have her play studied at her alma mater at the University of Canterbury. "I know they are Jane Austen enthusiasts when they laugh at them. I think the audience will be filled with people who know a lot about her. I hope I pass muster."

She calls her five-star-rated parody a mash-up of Beethoven, bonnets and big balls. It grew out of an improv show she did with friends back home in 2008; she then rewrote it, making it full of the romantic entanglements of Austen's world.

Ashton, making her fourth Winnipeg fringe appearance, had the title before the script. She wanted something that sounded Austen-esque but provocative, although the plot is totally chaste.

"I wanted a great story with characters people care about," she says. "I wanted to bring out the Austen archetypes, like the meddlesome mother, the uptight lady, the seemingly affable suitors and the insufferable man who turns out to be quite nice.

"The touchstones of her novels are the search for love and the search for security. That's what resonates with people today, because that is what people ultimately want in their lives."

That wasn't Austen's destiny. The seventh child of an Anglican rector, she spent most of her life in small Regency English towns, penning a handful of novels under the pseudonym "A Lady," before dying unmarried from a mysterious disease at 41.

There is a sliver of feminist outrage in Pride and Promiscuity directed at the social constraints of Austen's day. Women couldn't go out by themselves or be seen to earn money.

Ashton was not an avid reader of Austen when she was young. Like many Janeites, she became a convert after watching the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, featuring Colin Firth's famous wet-shirt scene, which was voted last year as England's most memorable drama moment. Entering that elegant world of bonnets and empire-waisted muslin gowns through her stage parody is like a nightly visit to an Austen theme park.

"I love the esthetic of it," she says. "I loved getting my costume made and I love how it enriches the audiences. It sounds a bit wanky but that's the ultimate goal."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 24, 2014 C7

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