A variety of unrelated acts—song and dance, comedy, acrobatics, pantomime, magic—vaudeville was the popular American entertainment before radio, film and television. Happenstance Theater, a group of local, contemporary vaudevillians to the core, have picked and plucked from America’s once-dominant theatrical art form and re-contextualized it in loving homage in Moxie, A Happenstance Vaudeville.
The multi-talented Helen Hayes Award winning ensemble collaboratively craft all aspects of their work and have been producing shows with a vintage aesthetic since 2006, including their popular nods to film noir (Cabaret Noir), the Big Top (Happenstance Circus) and Edward Gorey (Cabaret Macabre).
Arriving to the sounds of a locomotive (of course), the cast (Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, Karen Hansen, Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon) transports the audience back in time to vaudeville’s early 20th century peak through a series of vignettes, from an opening serenade to the seaside through a musical saw showcase, hypnotism gone awry, a dancing bear, silent-film-like interludes, a Chaplinesque routine with meatballs and cutlery and dreamy cosmic tableaux with Pierrot-like figures on stilts.
It’s quite a goulash of mirth and whimsy, and lovingly rendered by the company, but ultimately a mixed bag. The show’s sharp ideas about the poignant passing of time and the wonderful things usurped by the inexorable crawl forward could be improved upon to drive the point home.
Let me explain. Happenstance productions are not simply replicating bygone theatrical modes, but adding subtle commentary. In Moxie, we sometimes get tongue-in-cheek nudges at old-fashioned tricks and treats, and other times bittersweet demonstrations that hint at the performers having aged and popular entertainment in flux, displacing the old for new.
Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville
closes July 17, 2016
Details and tickets
Jaster’s musical saw player—a “greenhorn” playing his first vaudeville when we first encounter him, shuffles off the stage at show’s end gingerly, and hunched over, to Irving Berlin’s “The Song Is Ended.” Similarly, Sabrina Mandell’s Shakespearian orator first appears in full diva form, though already hinting that her better days are behind her (“It’s not the Athenaeum,” she huffs, upon arriving) but in a later recitation of Macbeth’s famous “sound and fury” soliloquy, she can’t help but digress on the passage of her own life, mortality and the inconceivable carnage of the Great War, still fresh in her mind’s rearview glass. We also see the performers deal with the emergence of radio and the moving picture, which more than anything else signaled the death knell for vaudeville.
The historical resonance is compelling, and though it may not be the Happenstance style, Moxie would be that much more powerful and unforgettable if the troupe heightened and enhanced these themes. Short interludes of dramatic action with these characters would go far to imbue them with life. As it is, the audience’s interaction is mostly passive and the presentation impressionistic, like absentmindedly flipping through an old scrapbook.
The deft pacing is handled well, but as with any medley, not everything quite works. For every lovely song such as “Shine On Harvest Moon” and “Moxie One-Step,” Hansen’s splendid piano accompaniment to Debussy and Holst, the delightful “O Sole Mio” routine performed by Grastorf and Vernon and the beautiful range of costumes by Mandell, there are misses. Some bits fall flat, or their repetition begins to wear tedious. Imaginatively conceived and constructed scenes like the stilts-walking Pierrot-like figures coveting the moon and another clown cavorting with celestial beauties are lyrical and pleasant but left me unsatisfied. Much like with the show overall, I wanted more than a pleasant experience; I wanted to be moved.
Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville collaboratively devised by Happenstance Theater. Featuring Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, Karen Hansen, Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon. Music arranged and/or composed by Karen Hansen. Lighting design by Kris Thompson. Set design/construction by Alex Vernon and Mark Jaster. Costume design by Sabrina Mandell. Stage Manager: Sophia Lewin Adams. Produced by Round House Theatre. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.