It was a Dark and Stormy Night. (insert sound of typewriter keys clacking here). Actually, the evening I saw Happenstance Theater’s Cabaret Noir in Baltimore, we had springlike temperatures and only a light drizzle. But it seems only fair to change the weather to suit the dark 1940s film noir atmosphere the company provided.
Happenstance is an unusual company. They perform original, performer-created, movement based pieces, which usually hang on themes such as the Macabre, Vanitas still life paintings of the 1600s, and in this case, the stylized acting and look of classic Film Noir.
The assembled company has some impressive resumes here, with several ensemble members having worked with luminaries such as Bread and Puppet Theater and Marcel Marceau, among others, and the varied backgrounds of the performers are put to good use in their productions.
Happenstance creates works that are not plays per se. Though there are some vignettes that return thoughout this piece, there’s no plotline to follow. Knowing that, though, doesn’t help with one’s sense of fragmentation in this piece: it’s clever, and a grand nod to film noir, certainly, but there’s no buildup at all, just some fleeting vignettes, some silly, some very, very funny, and some lightly tragic- but all in no particular order.
That’s problematic, as in the long run an audience wants to feel as if it’s going somewhere, not just driving around in circles looking at the sights. With no real message or meaning, you’re left with no real emotion invested in the show. It’s clever but not engaging.
And that’s a great pity, for there are some truly wonderful things happening on stage: newpapers fly in the wind, tiny men tapdance, two femme fatales duke it out in high Forties style, a car, made only of two cliplights, runs down a pedestrian. My personal favorite was a fellow who just cannot seem to successfully commit suicide: this particular piece, which had several hilarious episodes, could well serve as the fulcrum of the piece as a whole but was never fully realized, though it is well worth seeing the whole show just to see two people dangle Harold Lloyd-style out of a nonexistent window. It’s hysterical, and a great example of what Happenstance does well: create a narrative out of nonverbal movement.
The show I saw on Thursday evening was lightly attended- a pity, for it’s overall an enjoyable evening. Costumes in particular are just spot on- many kudos to designer Sabrina Mandell (also the Artistic Co-Director) for recreating the Forties look down to a tee: what I wouldn’t give for that glittery black velvet coat with the shoulder pads!
October 29 – November 15, 2015
at Baltimore Theatre Project
45 West Preston Street
Baltimore, MD 21201
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
There’s no set, though that isn’t of much concern when the cast is dressed so spectacularly. Lighting design by Kris Thompson was good – the Theatre Project is a small space, but with its high ceiling, actors can sometimes look a bit lost on it. Ms Thomson made it more intimate with well done spotlight and projections in the background. Sound does need some amplification, though, as singers, without mics or lavaliers, even with trumpet muffled, can fade a bit behind the live music.
A shoutout should also go to Karen Hansen as both musical director, composer, and, well, the entire band. At one point, she accompanied herself on trumpet whilst simultaneously playing the piano- it’s hard not to glue your eyes to that, no matter what else is going on on stage. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the woman play a slide trombone with her feet- it’s that impressive.
Speaking of impressive, the music is also a reason to go see the show: there are several fantastic pieces, most notably one in which the whole company breaks into beautifully harmonized song. I found myself wishing for more of that- these folks can really sing as well as move.
No author or director is credited, so it’s hard to tell if any one person is ultimately responsible for assembling this into a continuous piece, but that’s really all it needs: someone to take these good pieces and turn them into a more cohesive whole, with that ever-elusive beginning, middle, and end.
It’s a good evening out, if you don’t expect to be told a story and you just want to immerse yourself into the land of the Maltese Falcon, fast-talking detectives and 40s gangster flicks. Say, Joe, whaddaya know?
Cabaret Noir, created and performed by Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, Karen Hansen, Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmstead Thomas and Alex Vernon . Costume Design: Sabrina Mandell . Lighting: Kris Thompson . Shadow & Newspaper Puppets: Alex Vernon . Stage Manager: Amber S. Wright . Produced by Happenstance Theater . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.