Take a tip from me. If your jones for hard-nosed detectives, shady nighttime dealings on foggy piers, dive bars serving bathtub gin, torch songs, sassy dames and the like can’t be satiated by WAMU’s The Big Broadcast, head on over to Joe’s Movement Emporium, they got ‘em by the truckload. Tell ‘em Johnny sent you (wink wink).
The multi-Helen Hayes Award winning Happenstance Theater is remounting Cabaret Noir, their homage and/or affectionate send-up of 40’s film noir tropes they debuted in 2015, at Joe’s through the 15th. Over the years of my Boston detour I’d been keeping an eye on the goings-on back in DC, and Happenstance was one of the companies on the top of my list to look into. And I was not disappointed. Not many theatre companies can turn newspapers blowing in the wind into a romantic ballet, or can land running gags about suicide or seemingly bulletproof accordion players.
closes April 15, 2018
Details and tickets
Drawing on mime, physical comedy, music, movement, dance, slapstick, burlesque and reverence for the golden ages of radio, Hollywood, and the circus (that is to say, pre-television), Cabaret Noir is a dizzyingly funny, clever, atmospheric winner.
A string of vignettes (really too short to be called scenes, or even skits) are strung together into a loose narrative. A crooked factory owner on the lam, a desperate fall guy on the run, an aging silent film star on the decline, and a literal red herring all make several appearances. Interspersed throughout are period-appropriate songs (some authentically period, others from modern stylists like Tom Waits and Randy Newman) and literary quotes from the likes of Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway.
Happenstance is a rarity in that they have a core company of six actors and devise their own material. Led by co-founders Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell, the sextet are clearly well-versed in the period performance style. It’s a dynamite ensemble; Jaster in particular channels Buster Keaton with his dour deadpan, and Mandell charmingly flexible in her multiple roles. Gwen Grastorf and Sarah Olmsted Thomas crack wise as a variety of damsels in and out of distress. Alex Vernon is an engaging everyman. Karen “Shorty” Hansen provides musical accompaniment and sound effects, occasionally stepping onstage as well.
The staging is very less-is-more; the focus is squarely on the performers where it should be. That said, there are numerous ingenious coup-de-theatres that surprise and delight. Beautiful period costumes, some of which are sight gags in themselves.
Toward the end, the momentum flags a bit; even at a modest 75 minutes, it does feel longer. This perhaps is attributable to the lack of a propulsive narrative, and some gag fatigue sets in. Nonetheless, as one who grew up listening to old radio shows and tunes into The Big Broadcast whenever I am able, there’s much to enjoy and embrace with Cabaret Noir. It’s a treat. Don’t miss it.
CABARET NOIR, created and performed by Gwen Grastorf, Karen Hansen, Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, Sarah Olmstead Thomas and Alex Vernon. Music composed and/or arranged by Karen Hansen. Lighting: Kevin Boyce, Newspaper Puppets: Alex Vernon, Costumes: Sabrina Mandell, Stage Manager: Ronika S Harris. Produced by Happenstance Theater. Reviewed by John Geoffrion.
Small World Alert: In my past life, I performed with Ms Grastorf on multiple occasions.