‘Cabaret Macabre’ at Happenstance Theatre by Amanda Gunther

For a gory delight that perfectly befits the autumnal season you should let your aesthetic palette sample Happenstance Theatre’s 3rd Annual Cabaret Macabre. For September is the month of dying and October is the death, November must surely be one long funeral procession of the great seasons; the fact that this deliciously dark and devious string of sketches, scenes, and moments of morbid maladies straddles the ending of the death and the beginning of the funeral is just too perfect for words. A surly slip to the dark side for one night of riotous fun with ghoulish gems of comedy and touches of the more dark and sinister.

Happenstance Theatre’s Ensemble of’ 3rd Annual Cabaret Macabre.’ Photo by Leslie McConnaughey.

Happenstance Theatre prides their work on being visually poetic; the fact that this particularly production comes dedicated to the deceased is just an added thrill. Listed as a theatrical collage collaboratively devised by the ensemble this brilliant showcase of dark and dreary will unleash the black humors in you yet; just try not laughing at some of the more grisly bits that unfurl upon the black box stage. Taking profound influence from Edward Gorey, Victorian Nightmares, dangerous croquet, and Gothic romance, this show is a thriller.

Co-Artistic Directors of the company Sabrina Mandell and Mark Jaster wind themselves into this tangle of eerie essences, wending their way through scenes as an integral part of the performance. Jaster in particular is gruesome ghoul that you will love feasting your eyes upon; every movement articulated, every facial expression exacted at the precise moment. His over exaggerated responses to situations are wildly entertaining and he earns thunderous applause for his mime work, especially during a continual sketch entitled “Mannequin” where he poses as a mannequin doing things like considering the vast phenomenon of time. Jaster is a jewel of physical expression, a king of comedy and a don of darkness; all encompassed in one uproarious performance found here upon the stage.

Mandell is equally as talented in her physical responses but uses her body more so than her face. When she embodies a world of characters, be it high society lady in red or the wicked little child jumping rope and putting poison in her parents tea, Mandell adjusts her physicality accordingly; letting you really experience those characters up close and personally. Her gut-wrenching overly-dramatic rendition of Lady Macbeth’s blood-spot speech is a bloody knockout.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the grisly songs which trickle their way into this work of gothic art. Being sung by the women (Mandell, Gwen Grastorf, and Sarah Olmsted Thomas) is a number from 1922 entitled “The Sneak.” It’s a swanky charming little number and fits the saucy air of the moment. We hear a haunted melancholic tune from Thomas early in the show, “Where Is My Sailor Boy?” singing with perfect pitch like the voice of a ghost whispering across the ocean as she laments her drowned love. And the whole cast comes together for a romping good ditty led by Mandell, “Nix on the Glow-Worm, Lena!” We get a good sense of the gloomy comedy from the various musical interludes; definitely keep your ears open for “Gloomy Sunday” as well.

There are moments of harrowing agony; watching Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon drown— lovers desperate to try and reach one another in an on-going sketch called “The Broken Locket.” As they struggle against the ‘water’ (cleverly illuminated as a blue spotlight) it is heartbreaking to watch their faces as you realize they are drowning, dying, and drawing in their last breath. Vernon does get some uplifting moments, however, when reading his grim little poems about things found on safari sounding a bit like a morbidly twisted Dr. Seuss in the process.

The two signature pieces of the Cabaret, while differing slightly in their execution, close the show with a finesse that simply shrieks ‘macabre.’ The violent and brutal mime work of the Croquet scene is sheer comic brilliance gone maddeningly wrong; turning three-stooges style scene play into something grotesque and extremely gruesome, yet still hilarious to watch. And of course the “Danse Macabre” where the ensemble shares one final dance, an invitation to wake the dead in their stoic mourner-esque movements, reminding you that what you’ve seen has all been for those no longer among us.

Happenstance Theatre’s Ensemble of ‘3rd Annual Cabaret Macabre.’ Photo by Leslie McConnaughey.

The show could not happen without Wonder-woman and company member Karen Hansen. A jack-of-all-trades musician, Hansen takes to at least a dozen instruments throughout the performance, including the piano, organ, harp, trumpet, trombone, and a strange dual-bell trumpet that she appears to have welded together herself. The musical accompaniments make the show a huge success, and Hansen shows extreme versatility and talent in so flawless switching from one instrument to the next; playing a range of serious and not-so serious dark and engaging tunes.

It is well worth the experience of watching the nightmarish images of their minds slip right through their eyes and pop to life upon the stage; like a wisp of smoke slipping up from a lamp to reveal a dark djin.

Cabaret Macabre is a wonderfully woeful night filled with haunting imagery, with creative moments that will please even the most somber of corpses.

Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

Happenstance Theatre’s 3rd Annual Cabaret Macabre plays through November 11, 2012 at The Roundhouse Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.

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