FarFar Oasis is more a series of far-out nightclub acts than a play. But the mimetic artistry of Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell, the creative team behind Happenstance Theater, make it worth the trek to Mecca. Jaster, the master of poetic gestures, is a jester who can take us anywhere.
Projections of undulating sand dunes on a backdrop screen ease us into an oasis in the Sahara Desert. World traveler Mandell, in a wrinkled white suit and veiled hat, tells us she’s ecstatic to be “alone and free” outside urban areas. But she’s holding her map, also projected on the screen, upside down. Enter Jaster, in red fez, who brings her down to earth with a cryptic, Arabic proverb: “…..the wise man travels by caravan while the fool travels alone.” We’re in Arabiana, a highly romanticized Middle Eastern mirage.
Trained by Marcel Marceau and Etienne Delcroux, Jaster can make us laugh with the flick of a hand gesture. One highpoint is Jaster’s pantomime of a knife-throwing act, worthy of the Cirque du Soleil. As the stakes escalate, actor/singer Scott Sedar as the target, shudders against an imaginary wall. Jaster turns his back; then blindfolds himself, and flings the knife over his shoulder. Sedar gasps, “Pffft!” Near miss every time. We gulp in empathy at the defiance of death. Then Sedar hits us with the moral: “Fate throws a knife at you. There are two ways to catch it-by the blade or by the handle.”
There’s unexpected anarchy in Jaster’s work that makes it fun and fascinating to watch. What’s he going to do next? One moment he’s Napoleon on horseback, with a double-edged message, that seems to say submit to our freedom or die. Then there are sight gags: Using bowler hats to simulate the humps on a camel’s back. Or Jaster falls to the floor and simulates crawling across the desert to reach a canteen? No it’s his ukulele. Well, it’s sort of shaped like a bottle. At moments he’s a reincarnation of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, in those big-eyed, slow takes. Certainly there are hints of the Chaplinesque in his work. He literally invites you to not just visualize but to expect what isn’t there.
Cut to other scenes in the thematically connected acts: Spotlighted, baritone-bass Scott Sedar croons the recognizable “Stranger in Paradise” from Kismet (by Wright and Forrest, 1953) into a microphone. Thereafter, Mandell, in a plush sequined gold gown, joins Sedar in the toe-tapping, catchy, “Istanbul, not Constantinople,” (Kennedy and Simon, 1953). Or there’s the nostalgic “Sheik of Araby,” (Harry Smith & Francis Wheeler, 1921, revived by Spike Jones, 1942) a delightful number, accompanied by Sedar simulating a snare drum by using whisk brooms against his knees.
Mandell, as the scholarly lecturer, shines when she delivers Shelley’s famous poem, Ozymandias (1818). And Sedar gives the overall piece operatic depth with Mozart’s aria “O Isis and Osiris“ from The Magic Flute, set in Egypt. My ultimate favorite, however, for Mandell and Sedar were their campy, melodramatic depictions of silent films starring Rudolph Valentino, Pola Negri or Douglas Fairbanks, based on The Sheik, (1921) and The Thief of Bagdad, (1924)
Much could be said of musical director Tina Chancey’s contribution to tone down the vaudevillian slapstick in her use of authentic, ancient instruments, like the Viola da gamba, or the Kamenj, a Turkish stringed-and-bowed-instrument; or Renaissance double-reeds, like the Krummhorn, that inject an oboe-like, exotic atmosphere throughout the show. Or the jug band instruments, the Washboard, as used in the Chicago sequence. Also noteworthy is her transcription of an Islamic Call to Prayer.
Voluminous research backs up this loosely-connected pastiche of cultural fusion. Some acts, like those on Lawrence of Arabia, frankly smack of arrogant colonialism, worthy of the most exaggerated, satiric treatment they receive. And those Camel Cigarette commercials, dated 1949-53, by Chancey, can only be called film noir warnings for lung cancer. People actually listened these ads?
Before the show, I would definitely recommend snatching a “FarFar Oasis Text notes and sources” – helpful, printed handouts in the lobby, that probably should be stuffed in the programs. And try some of the candy cigarettes or Turkish Delights, hawked by the cigarette girl, dressed in white tux coat and corded top hat, true to 1940’s style.
By Happenstance Theater
Directed and written by Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell
Musical Direction by Tina Chancey
Produced by Happenstance Theater at Round House Theatre Silver Spring
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.