Happenstance Theater has found a winsome way to keep Halloween in our hearts all year long—the chills, the thrills, the frights, the things that go bump in the night.
The troupe’s Cabaret Macabre celebrates the season of the witch, the Day of the Dead and every doomsday in-between with a decorously lurid vaudeville dedicated to grotesqueries and the deeply weird.
The show pays lavish tribute to the droll, funereal sensibilities of illustrator and author Edward Gorey, who may be best known for his gothic storybooks—his alphabet in “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” begins with those memorable lines “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs/B is for Basil assaulted by bears”—as well as for the animated opening sequence for the PBS “Mystery!” series.
Everything we cherish about Gorey appears in Cabaret Macabre—the willowy, hollow-eyed women perpetually clad in widow’s weeds who seem on the verge of collapsing from the vapors, the English maids as proper as their starched white aprons, the men in Edwardian evening dress with tails and top hats. One male character even trots out in a fur coat—a nod to Mr. Gorey’s famous mode of dress when attending the ballet.
The six-member ensemble—led by Happenstance’s artistic directors Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell—expertly captures the morbid chic of Gorey’s illustrations and enigmatic writing style as well as adding a few ghoulish flourishes of their own.
Details in the production are spotless and mordantly witty. A vampire-red curtain hangs against the back wall. The stage is enveloped in velvety blackness that is broken here and there by pools of stark white light. Victorian-style placards placed on easels announce each scene.
The graceful and physically facile ensemble creates striking, affecting images, often without uttering a sound, or in one scene, having cast member Gwen Gastorf execute a perfectly timed unearthly shriek while two couples whirl blithely through the paces of the waltz. The uncannily talented Mr. Jaster portrays a tap-dancing midget, one-half of a set of precocious twins, and an affected artiste who does imitations of mannequins. Miss Mandell shifts seamlessly between a little girl who eviscerates her dollies and the prim, commanding headmistress of the Academy for Precocious Twins.
Miss Gastorf and Esther Williamson deftly handle the singing tableaux, beautifully pulling off a grim duet about keeping secrets while executing mirror-image choreography. Miss Mandell has her way with a song as well, a grisly jump rope chant about beards and garden shears. Matthew Pauli ably portrays a child—depicted as a faceless doll atop a white rocking horse—literally scared to death during a hellraising ride through the woods with his father that is set to Franz Schubert’s “Der Erlkonig” with Brothers Grimm-like text by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe.
The civilized horrors depicted onstage are heightened by musician Karen Hansen’s compositions and arrangements, which she performs on the piano, cello, accordion and most memorably, a mournful sounding organ that would not be out of place at The Phantom of the Opera. Mr. Jaster accompanies Miss Hansen on the saw, which he manipulates with a bow for an eerie Theremin-like effect.
To describe too much of what goes on during this hour-long cabaret would ruin the element of elegant surprise. Let’s just say that after Cabaret Macabre you will never think of croquet as an old-timey, polite pastime. In their hands, it is the bloodsport of kings.
Cabaret Macabre continues thru Nov 13, 2011 at Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd, Silver Spring, MD.
Created, directed and produced by Happenstance Theater
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: 1 hour with no intermission