The third annual Cabaret Macabre offers audiences an inventive walk on the weird side of life, just in time for Halloween. In an evening of eerie Victorian mishaps, Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, and the creative bunch at Happenstance Theater push the bounds of live theater with off-the-wall characters, creepy music, and gracefully choreographed madness.
Mark Jaster opens the night of unconventional, ghoulish vignettes by playing a quavering melody with a table saw and violin bow. The audience is introduced to the inhabitants of The Manor, a motley gang of shut-ins and loony pensioners. The versatile Mandel brings some early levity with a hilarious turn as a naïve little girl skipping rope and reciting morbid nursery rhymes. A number of odd figures stroll across the stage, confirming The Manor as a place you wouldn’t want to wander alone at night.
The production switches back and forth between locales fluidly, periodically visiting a small boat in the middle of the ocean. Using synchronized swaying and minimalist set pieces, the performers cleverly simulate heavy seas as foul deeds brew inside the tiny craft. The quirky Sarah Olmstead Thomas sings the mournful folk ballad “Where is my Sailor Boy?”, tempering a run of black comedy with sobering emotion.
Soon the locale switches to the Grimsby Bullet, a packed commuter train that offers an object lesson in the importance of personal space. As with the boat, the performers create a convincing illusion of train travel, utilizing body movements, mouth noises, and a few wooden chairs. Jaster and company wring subtle comedy from common public transit awkwardness, at the expense of an amusingly frustrated poet played by the mustachioed Alex Vernon.
The show’s most resounding laughs wait until the third act at “The Manor” when the cast switches to mockery of Victorian upper crust. Thomas recites a bizarre German aria to open a lavish cocktail party, and an assortment of snobs, from a Shakespeare-butchering social butterfly to a self-amused rhyming colonel, rotate through the spotlight. Jaster steals the show with his comedic turn as a supercilious performer specializing in mannequin poses. His character’s fitted tuxedo and insatiable demand for applause belie a wholly unremarkable talent.
Likeable Gwen Grastorf often provides the everywoman foil to the nonsense plied by the other performers. In particular, her good natured maid acts as the avatar of the audience onstage, fuming at the ridiculous demands of the mannequin specialist. A small amount of sweet revenge over her preening boss is as gratifying to the audience as it is to Grastorf’s put-upon character.
Eventually, a climactic game of full contact croquet elevates the show to a new level of absurdist comedy. Jaster and Vernon, along with their partners Mandel and Thomas, wage a rapidly escalating war of mallets that lies somewhere near the intersection of “The Three Stooges” and The Importance of Being Earnest. The body control of each performer is particularly impressive, as they flop around like rag dolls in slow motion.
Closes November 11, 2012
Round House Theatre – Silver Spring
8641 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910
1 hour, 15 minutes with no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Karen Hansen accompanies the shenanigans on an array of instruments including trumpet, piano, mini-trombone, and accordion. Her versatile one woman band act suits the little show well, as it gallops nimbly through its progression of Gothic nightmares and daydreams.
The unsung hero of the show is surely Sabrina Mandel’s yeoman-like effort on costume design. Cabaret Macabre establishes the desired Victorian atmosphere largely through Mandel’s assortment of Downton Abbey fashions, from dowdy servant dresses and simple bed shirts to polished uniforms and shiny evening gowns.
Much of the comedy in Cabaret Macabre is so subtle or weird that it falls flat or is met simply with a silent grin. This makes for some uncomfortable moments, wherein performer and audience peer silently at each other through the fourth wall, as if waiting to see who will flinch first. On the whole, Happenstance bravely juts their chin out in a new direction, offering audiences a cerebral and uniquely funny look at life through the prism of Edward Gorey’s sketchbooks and other similar Gothic influences. The production succeeds largely on the strength of the performers and well-executed design concept, making Cabaret Macabre a brisk, funny night of Halloween laughs and creeps for all ages.
Cabaret Macabre. Conceived, Directed, and Produced by Happenstance Theater Company. Featuring Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, Karen Hansen, Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmstead Thomas and Alex Vernon. Reviewed by Ben Demers.