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July 13, 2018

by Nelson Pressley

     Happenstance Theater was birthed at the 2006 Fringe Festival, and its rarefied act is polished to an aristocratic shine in “Barococo.” The devised piece features six performers as the European Baroque-Rococo upper crust — the idle rich whiling away the hours with flirting, fencing, cards and come-what-may. Little do they know.

     That’s a dark message for Happenstance, an ensemble that often floats like a butterfly but rarely stings like a bee. The troupe’s discipline is firmly on display; no gesture is half-baked as the characters mince across the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage (the show is part of the Fringe Curated series, with all five selections presented in the Cradle). There’s more movement than talking, though there is a wonderful game of charades that inspires riotous wrong answers. You’ll need to consult the program to appreciate such puffed-up character names as Leslie Pamplemousse de Citron-Presse and Olympia Stroganovskaya.

      There are shadows of “Waiting for Godot,” albeit at the other end of the social scale, as the sextet sighs between finding diverting things to do. “I’m going to take a walk,” one of bunch announces, because a body’s got to do something. Ennui as a subject, though, can indeed generate ennui.

     It’s a performance of fits and starts, but the hour-long show eventually clicks to a crisp point, and the craftsmanship is always admirable from this band of mimes, musicians and movement specialists. Karen Hansen provides accompaniment on multiple instruments, as usual, with harpsichord setting a fragile moneyed tone. The ensemble of Sabrina Mandell, Mark Jaster, Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon — all clad in the privileged set’s wigs and sumptuously layered costumes — interact with mannered bows and simpering grins. The detail is so exacting that when they pantomime a meal you can practically see the juices, and an extended comic squabble at the table is entirely worth the price of admission. As portraits of wastefulness go, this one has an exquisite leer.



2018 Capital Fringe Review: BAROCOCO

July 11, 2018

by John Stoltenberg

     Happenstance Theater, the much-lauded purveyors of cheekily sophisticated whimsy, have brought another original devised work to Fringe, and if it doesn’t tickle your funny bone, you might want to have that checked.

     Happenstance’s distinctive theatrical style—honed for a dozen years now under the artistic co-directorship of Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell—entails highbrow clowning, lush design, witty lifting from history, lots of mime, minimal text, and a collective imagination that thinks nothing of mixing kooky and astute. The show now on the boards at Arena is called Barococo (a portmanteau from Baroque and Rococo). The periodish couture of it is shown in this promo photo, but really to be fully appreciated these erudite zanies must be seen in performance.

Karen Hansen (Doppio Gernelli Von Sharfenberghopf), Alex Vernon (Leslie Pmplemousee de Citron-Pressé), Sarah Olmsted Thomas (Dauphine Marionette), Sabrina Mandell (Olympia Stroganovskaya), Gwen Grastorf (Constance Blandford Plainview), and Mark Jaster (Astorio Cavalieri) in ‘Barococo.’ Photo courtesy of Happenstance Theater Company.

Barococo was conceived of as a spoof of the aristocracy in pre-Revolutionary France and, by insinuation, the one percent now. It’s a brilliant comic conceit and could not be more cathartically on time.

     Stage right are a harpsichord and other instruments of the era, which during the show will be played euphoniously by Karen Hansen, musical director. Elsewhere are a table and two fencing foils that other members of the giftedly twisted ensemble—Mandell, Jaster, Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, and Alex Vernon—will shortly put to hilarious use.

     The show opens with animated tableaux vivants, which play back as though on rewind. Handkerchiefs, a sword, a deck of cards, a book—the cast makes of simple props a sequence of nonsequiturs. It doesn’t make much sense, but its silliness is irresistible.

There follows a series of games—riddles, charades, hide and seek—with clever bits of dialogue (“Soon we will all be history!”). The sight gags, which I won’t spoil, are priceless, as are the puns and double entendres (to a cellist: “Touch the G string. That’s the spot”).

     There are some lovely musical interludes as when a chamber ensemble joins Hansen, who plays multiple instruments ambidextrously. And the high point of the clowning is a pantomimed grande bouffe that becomes a slo-mo food fight and had the opening night audience howling.

     Happenstance freely acknowledges (I’m paraphrasing) that the company subsumes substance to style on playful purpose. Yet the parodistic point of Barococo becomes deliciously explicit at the end, when the elite get their comeuppance, albeit comedically (“You cannot starve the people and not expect to pay”).

     Perhaps because this piece is brand-new, it feels slightly uneven. The majority of the passages are polished to perfection, but a few seem still tentative in timing and intent. For instance, in the opening moments, the characters play “what’s going on here?” uncertainty apparently for laughs, but it doesn’t land as such; it’s just unsure. This I’d bet will get better during the Fringe run. For the most part, be assured: Barococo plays with a pace and panache that make it a pastel parfait of frothy fun.






Review: Barococo at Capital Fringe

July 12, 2018

by Tim Caron

     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).

     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.

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