Impossible! is more than just a concept and title for Happenstance Theater’s newest circus-oriented offering; it is the high bar of quality and aim that the ensemble and directors of this charming and thoroughly entertaining show set for themselves. And, for the most part, they clear that bar and look good doing it.
You’d think that a show which is entirely based on theatrical magic, but reveals all of its secrets, would be impossible. But Impossible! makes it happen. The key to their success is the masterful physicality of their actors, who use their bodies to indicate the performance of a magic trick or death-defying circus act without the actual tools of the act.
An early scene provides an example of this apparently simple, but ludicrously difficult technique. Our ringmaster (a role which is alternately played by most of the cast) announces a high-wire act and out steps Sarah Olmstead Thomas in a hilariously stiff ballet getup as a thin beam of white light appears onstage. She mimes climbing a ladder and once she “reaches the top,” she begins to precariously walk along the beam of light as if it were a tightrope, with all of the cringing clutches and attempts at grace with ice water-filled veins that would happen if she was actually 50 feet in the air.
Here’s the amazing (and impossible) bit: this type of stunt totally works. Even though I was aware that she was on the ground and in no danger, Thomas’ total commitment to physically embodying a tightrope walker made me clutch with her and feel genuine relief when she reached the “platform” on the other side of the beam of light. Her (and all of her castmates’) artful, disciplined, and almost dance-like physical expressions not only suspend disbelief, but expel it and send it to military school in Alaska.
You’d think that a circus show that keeps adults guffawing and holds the attention of even the littlest audience members would be impossible. But Impossible! manages to satisfy all comers’ expectations. Kids will enjoy the silliness of the cast. In the sometimes dreaded clown portion of the evening, Happenstance (the ensemble is credited with the movement choreography) takes the usual frenetic madness of the pie in the face routine and slows it down in places, creating a madly incongruous Matrix-like chase scene. The young ones love it because of how wacky it is (and they haven’t learned proper terror of clowns), but the adults can enjoy it by being wowed by the ensemble’s body-bending yoga-esque stretches in the slow motion sections. All of this scene (and the whole production) is scored by the multi-talented Karen Hansen, who plays a bevy of instruments, mirroring the flexibility of the actors with her flexibility on everything from giant train whistle to trombone.
The best example of this duality in appeal comes from Mark Jaster, whose mind-blowing abilities get a showcasing treatment in Impossible! Jaster’s physical skill and discipline hit a high point in the “animal show” scene, where he plays a monkey, a horse, and a lion in succession. The young audience members enjoy seeing an adult play the animal imitation game that all children play, but I was struck by the specificity of Jaster’s animals. The monkey was specifically a chimp (yes, yes I know they’re apes) whose wide twitches, diverted looks, and arch-backed walking showed an animal long experienced in performance. Similarly, Jaster’s lion was not just him crawling on all fours wearing a ruff. His lion was the consummate show lion: elderly yet playful and definitely recovering from a meal and a nap. Jaster’s animals were astonishing, but they are only examples of his breathtaking whole performance. He puts to shame all those who have given mime a bad name over the years. I’m shocked (and frankly a bit angry at myself) that I haven’t seen Mark Jaster perform before, and I recommend you get see Impossible! if only to take in his wonderful performance.
IMPOSSIBLE! A HAPPENSTANCE CIRCUS
June 26 – July 12
Happenstance Theater at
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway
1 hour 20 minutes, no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets or call 240.644.1100
Another impossibility Impossible! overcomes is the reputation of the circus for being all fun and games. They don’t just balance the frivolity and silliness of circus with the overused sad clown trope. Impossible! gives the audience a behind the big top look at the lives of the performers, showing truly human moments of them as lovers, fighters, and wistful wanderers struggling to make their lives in a nomadic pauper’s life. Seeing these characters’ hope and disappointment at mail call or the unrequited love of a roustie for a fire-eater rounds these characters more fully than they otherwise might have been. Those touches of sweetness deepen the performance as a whole, and, if anything, I wanted to see more of that.
The final impossibility Impossible! attempts to clear lies in the fullness of the show. Happenstance has based this show on scraps of early 20th century pop culture and circus lore, from Robert Sherwood and Charlie Chaplin to Frederico Fellini and the Ross Sisters. If you think that might result in being somewhat haphazard and incomplete, you’d be partially right. The resulting collage fills the 80 minute run time decently, but not only is there a bit too much air in the play, Impossible! feels as if the creators kept on putting bits in until there was enough length to call it a show. To be fair, they’ve found some beautiful gems in their historical collage; I just want the whole play to be as polished as those individual pieces.
But those gems are just that: beautiful and polished examples of physical theater executed at a level not often seen on DC stages. Happenstance takes the wide open space of Round House Theatre and with a few curtains, some fine music from Karen Hansen, and brilliant physicality from its actors, fills that space with laughter and joy. I’ll buy a ticket to that any day, and you should, too.