BON VOYAGE! A Happenstance Escapade is a soupçon, a patisserie, a confection, and, in its smellier moments, a big fromage! But most of all it is Mark Jaster’s love letter to Paris. And thanks to the tight ensemble members who devised the entire work, its sweet romantic heart breaks through.
In the days of high tech productions by many illustrious local theatrical institutions, it is refreshing to remember that theater as an art form is, at its essence, what happens between an actor and his or her audience and the space between them. Happenstance never forgets this.
Let’s just start with the credits. ‘Mark and Sabrina’ (there can be no last name references with this team) are founders and co-directors of the company are also individually or together responsible for the translations, set, costume design and construction and, although not listed, directing.
Sabrina is, as everyone acknowledges the “ visionary tornado” of the company, and for sheer energetic presence she packs big voltage. She has given the work a beautiful look and also takes on the role of the modern, slightly brash young woman headed for emancipation.
Mark is the master teacher, the wise center, and to my mind something of a Prospero. He has been a bright fixture in Washington theater for several decades, and I have watched his talent get honed since high school when he was first bitten by the physical theater bug. He went off to live in France and study with the great mimes: Étienne Decroux and Marcel Marceau (hence the love affair with Paris,) and since he has returned to work in the area he has never forgotten his roots or his indebtedness to his masters. Few actors have been so loyal or so consistently on a path.
It shows. In the words of the great master of theoretical classical treatises in Japanese physical theatre, Zeami, Mark is in full yugen (flower.) Even in the midst of this talented team of mime-based theater practitioners, Mark stands out. Zeami (again) would say you no longer see the technique. Everything seems effortless. All that you experience is his humanity.
Bon Voyage! follows the journey of six characters at the end of the 19th century who meet up on their way to Paris for the famous exposition. They travel together by foot, bicycle, and at one point hot air balloon. (Bicycles as well as air balloons were fantastically invented newcomers to the landscape.) They take in some of the brightest attractions of the bustling city including the Eiffel Tower, the Sacre Coeur, and the Palais D’Exposition. It makes for a lovely introduction for children or children at heart to the city of lights. Indeed, the work feels like a children’s travel book come to life.
BON VOYAGE! A Happenstance Escapade
closes July 31, 2017
Details and tickets
No one exemplifies this better than Sabrina in her marvelously tailored costume with its scarlet jacket and balloon pants riding a “penny farthing” high-wheeler bicycle. Alex Vernon plays Claude, the head-in-the-clouds inventor, who takes a liking to her bike and joins the pack. His work on and off the bike, including his puppetry, is happily inventive. Gwen Grastorf plays the icon Marianne, a kind of ur-Lady Liberty herself, striking poses and spouting political philosophy of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Karen Hansen plays the inventor Frère Jacques – and yes there is a line, “Dormez vous?”
Did I say the piece is filled with rhymes and corny jokes? Also, there are plenty of French songs. Despite all the music inventively played by Hansen on a variety of instruments, singing is not this company’s strong suit. Nonetheless, to my mind, what they delivered in their simple acoustic arrangements was a glorious respite from “wired” actors belting numbers from loud to louder over heavily amplified instruments that abound these days. In particular, Sarah Olmstead Thomas’ pure rendition of “L’amour au Clair de lune” was lovely.
What the company does outstandingly is realize simple magical moments on stage through physical action, especially those incorporating classic mime moves. There’s a lovely bit of choreographic fun with the entire ensemble walking up and down the maze of stairs in the newly opened French metro to get to various platforms. The actors also pull on an imaginary rope to keep the hot air balloon from fling away, then suddenly they’re carried en l’air and appear as tiny puppets floating across the backdrop.
One of the most hilarious scenes is a visit through the Louvre, with the different actors striking poses of the different famous paintings. From the Mona Lisa Botticelli’s “Venus” to Marat in the Bathtub and Rodin’s “Thinker” and “The Kiss,” it was fun to hear the audience enjoy the guessing game.
These players demonstrate a street-theater savvy. They interact with the audience, playing off what individuals give them, improvising moments. Thomas, as “Oops,” serves as both mime scene announcer (with placards) and a kind of stage manager, and at one point she has the whole audience beating out the stages of a rainstorm while the other actors on stage respond to our finger rubbing, snapping, and clapping. In fact, Thomas is that rare performer that simply through her expressive eyes invites and reflects back an audience’s wonder.
Truly, the Happenstance Theater lets audience members, young and old, unabashedly discover wonder again.
The show seems to be still finding its ending, but I’ll go along for the ride regardless. Who knows, I might come out speaking French! I might even offer to take a kid along. Any takers?
Bon Voyage! A Happenstance Escapade. Collaboratively devised by the ensemble. Music arranged and/or composed by Karen Hansen. Translations by Mark Jaster. Lighting designed by Kris Thompson. Set Design by Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell and Alex Vernon. Costume Design by Sabrina Mandell. Produced by Happenstance Theater. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.