As an amateur history buff, I’ve long been fascinated by Revolution-era France. Between podcast binges and addictive ancestry research, I want to better understand how the greatest power in continental Europe was nearly torn apart by unprecedented social and political reform, and how countries today might avoid such chaos. It was just my luck, then, that I got to see Happenstance Theater’s Barococo, a Fringe feast of physical comedy and barbs dressed in silk stocking. Whether or not you share my interest in the show’s historical context, you’ll be sure to enjoy the timeless entertainment provided by its clownish cast.
In Barococo, the audience is hosted in a parlor by an ensemble of French nobility, confined as their kingdom is pushed over the edge. By the play’s end, one gets the sense these people are trapped inside a gilded cage, left only with manners, games, and old routines to keep them distracted from the pandemonium outside. Like clockwork, each nobleperson falls into the same automated movement repeatedly in the show. In-between, we’re treated to vignettes of their aristocratic life, marked by riddles, charades, dancing, and letter-writing.
Thankfully, the extravagance of Royal France is put into just the right places onstage. The minimalist set (featuring an assortment of musical instruments in the corner, with a quill-laden table at center) is complemented well by the spacious but intimate feel of the Kogod Cradle. The costumes look authentic and finely tailored, and the cast wears them well.
An undeniable highlight of Barococo stems from its many uses of the body. The entire ensemble excels in physical performance. This strength is perhaps best-demonstrated in a simulated duel between half of the group (Alex Vernon, Sabrina Mandell, and a fantastic Mark Jaster), as well as in a mimed, gluttonous meal that devolves into a vicious fake fight. Elsewhere, a dance scene is marked by restrained and graceful choreography. For all of these moments, the use of live music (performed by the versatile Karen Hansen) is very effective. When seated at her harpsichord, Hansen impressively rotates between a number of instruments. Rounding out the cast are Gwen Grastorf and Sarah Olmstead Thomas (who alternates wonderfully between a stilted bearing and furious bursts of energy).
closes July 22, 2018
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The play is a comedy of manners that occasionally exposes the characters’ fears of revolution. The interplay between everyone feels right at home with Mozart’s wilder scenes in Amadeus. Several times, the ensemble deliver faux compliments toward each other with great timing. Later, an innocent thumb war turns into an hilarious and risqué romp. In their most impressive balancing act, a moment with personal letters manages to elicit both laughter and sympathy towards the blissfully ignorant aristocrats.
For all its strengths, Barococo does occasionally stumble. Two bits in particular, involving an innuendo-heavy music lesson and a bit of toilet humor, feel less inspired than everything else. Later on, the show’s use of wall-breaking turns a bit too Python-esque. Also, one of the distinctly physical scenes, in which the ensemble moves together from a crawl to a race around the stage, feels unnecessary.
Nitpicking aside, Barococo is a fine hour of theatre, and a showcase for a well-rounded cast that knows how to milk words, music, and physicality for laughs.