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‘Cabaret Macabre’ at Happenstance Theater

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Delivering a tantalizing treat for the Halloween season, Happenstance Theater makes its Baltimore debut at the Theatre Project with the fifth iteration of its 2013’s Helen Hayes multiple award-nominated production of Caberet Macabre.

The cast of 'Cabaret Macabre.'Photo by Leslie McConnaughey.

The cast of ‘Cabaret Macabre.’ Photo by Leslie McConnaughey.

Inspired by the droll, darkly comic material of late author/illustrator Edward Gorey, who may be best known for his gothic storybooks (his alphabet in “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” begins with those memorable lines: “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs/B is for Basil assaulted by bears”, as well as for the animated opening sequence for the PBS “Mystery!” series), Happenstance Theater’s Cabaret Macabre revives witty, visual theatrical collage sketches with unique and whimsical flair.  Since opening its first performance in 2010, the winsome show pays tribute to the vaudeville revues and clowning routines of the early 20th Century, making effective use of a simple single set stage, dynamic props and vigorous live music.

Collaborative and cohesive, the six-member ensemble, led by Happenstance Theater’s Co-Artistic Directors Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell, brings each moment and character to life with a seemingly effortless, endless theatrical skill set, cleverly capturing the morbid chic of Gorey’s illustrations and writing style.

Smartly suited with a sinister smirk, Mark Jaster opens the production and welcomes the audience with his hauntingly amusing narration.  Accessorized with his black top hat, pasty-faced make up and deadpan dagger-like glowers, Jaster is a consummate, jack-of-all trades performer, not only can he sing and clown, as well as display the most expressive eyebrows and mimes, but he also expertly plays a table saw and violin bow like a concert virtuoso.

Likewise, Karen Hansen eerily and enchantingly entrances with her masterful use of numerous musical instruments (including the piano, ukulele, trumpet and pump organ) throughout the show, while also having singlehandedly arranged or composed all of the show’s music. Hansen and Jaster serve as the emcees of the diverse production, keeping each act briskly paced, fluid and moving throughout the approximately 75-minute performance. Sabrina Mandell, Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, and Alex Vernon complete the exceptionally versatile troupe; each performer artfully delivering harmonizing, complementary styles and techniques.

Introduced with decorative Vaudeville style cards, the wide-ranging cabaret includes snippets of peculiarities like the ill-timed, morbid telegram announcements and a deranged little girl, Colette (Sabrina Mandell), jump-roping while reciting horrifyingly twisted nursery rhymes to more elaborate exhibitions like “The Spilsby Suitor” (with an imaginative creation of wind and rain by the actors) or “The Curious Cousins”.  The pure pinnacle of the show, however, emerges in the rousing development of the “Croquet” sketch.

Beginning innocuously enough as an engaging Victorian game amongst some recurring characters precisely woven throughout the show, the narrator (Karen Hansen) explains the basic premise and rules of the game. The most literal interpretation of these rules plunges the entire group into a brilliantly coordinated chaotic synchronization of events that garner giggles and shrills throughout. Gwen Grastorf, in her recurring character of the bitter, under-appreciated maid, hilariously rises to the occasion and is an absolute delight to watch, as she with her deadpan comic expressions gets the reverberating last laugh.

The Croquet sketch with L to R: Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, and Gwen Grastorf. Photo courtesy of Happenstance Theater.

The Croquet sketch with Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, and Gwen Grastorf. Photo courtesy of Happenstance Theater.

From start to finish, Happenstance’s Cabaret Macabre is non-stop intrigue, surprise, and variety, creatively pushing the envelope of live theater with disturbingly offbeat characters, unsettlingly peculiar music and charmingly choreographed folly.

Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, with no intermission.

Cabaret Macabre played on October 24, 25, 26, 27, 30, 31;  November 1 and 2, 2014 at Happenstance Theater performing at The Baltimore Theatre Project— 45 West Preston Street in Baltimore, MD.

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