There’s something inherently magical about the art of clown performance, a sense of childlike wonder that transcends common divisions of, age, race, gender, and language. In Happenstance Theater’s whimsical Look Out Below!, the husband and wife clown team of Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell, along with accompanist Karen Hansen, hold sway over the audience with gleeful slapstick, graceful acrobatic feats, and emotional musical interludes. Audience members young and old ride along with the performers on their journey to 19th Century Paris, transported to this city of dreams on waves of laughter and gasps of awe.
Look Out Below! tells the story of Pierrot the clown as he journeys to Paris to make the first recorded sound. With a blend of wordplay and manic physical comedy, the husband and wife team of Jaster and Mandell recreate scenes from city life, tracing a path through pivotal Paris locales. As the action courses through the Eiffel Tower, Moulin Rouge, Paris Metro, and the Circus, each setting plays host to ingenious displays of clowning.
As the proper, refined clown Pierrot, Mark Jaster brings to the stage a figure full of grace and dignity. He is a man on a mission of supreme cultural import, and he is constantly frustrated by any obstacles in his way – first among them the silly behavior of his companion Augustine. Jaster is an extremely skilled performer, displaying an uncanny level of emotion with just his body and facial expressions and delighting the audience with flips, pratfalls, and handstands. Jaster perfected his technique while training with the famed Marcel Marceau and Etienne Decroux, and the influence of these modern masters is plain to see in Jaster’s impressive performance.
As Pierrot’s daffy, lovable companion Augustine, Sabrina Mandell creates the perfect foil for Jaster’s pompous clown. She serves as the representative of the audience within the events of the play, narrating Pierrot’s journey and often asking crowd members for help. One of her most endearing moments occurs when she recruits the audience to aid her in conjuring a giant thunderstorm to scare her perturbed partner. Eventually, she has the whole theater rubbing their hands together, slapping their knees, and yelling out suggestions for types of rain, ranging from dogs to horses. Mandell boasts considerable acrobatic talents of her own, demonstrating her gymnastic prowess during a mesmerizing trapeze section near the end of the show. With her goofy, carefree persona and lithe physicality, Mandell proves herself the capable Yin to Jaster’s polished, dignified Yang.
Karen Hansen brings her own special talents to the role of Max Calliope, the one-man band. Throughout the show, Hansen rotates through numerous instruments, displaying an impressive mastery of brass, woodwinds, strings, and percussion. Immediately after finishing a rousing march on trombone, she starts strumming away on a tiny guitar, pausing only briefly to speak with Pierrot before moving on to a rousing piano medley. She even plays a beautiful harp. Hansen’s facility with multiple instruments and musical styles lends Look Out Below! a lofty production quality usually only reserved for larger shows that can accommodate full bands or orchestras.
The visual design eschews complicated sets for a small group of carefully selected scenic elements, maximizing the attention devoted to clowning and comic business. A dynamic backdrop with various striking colors and designs sets the scene for each locale. Various props, including a giant drum, freestanding ladder, elaborate paper dolls, and a sound recording machine bristling with tubes and dials, help the performers create magic in each scene.
Topping out at almost exactly one hour, the production provides just the right amount of entertainment. The sweet, simple plot and dialogue, combined with Jaster and Mandell’s imaginative antics and Hansen’s infectious musical stylings make for a production that can be understood and enjoyed by people of all ages. Within the course of sixty minutes, Jaster, Mandell, and Hansen will win you over and leave you wanting more when the lights go up all too soon.
Look Out Below
by Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell
Co-directed by Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell
Produced by Happenstance Theater
Reviewed by Ben Demers
Look Out Below! runs thru Dec 20th, 2009 at Round House Theatre, Bethesda.
Celia Wren . The Post