A colorful celebration of classic circuses and clowns from the 1930s and ’40s, Happenstance Theater elevates old-fashioned, family-friendly entertainment to a fantastical new level with Impossible! A Happenstance Circus, which officially opened at Round House Theatre last night.
Set on a simple, yet purposeful, proscenium stage, highlighting fanciful, brightly-hued costumes and vintage accessories, the six-member ensemble, consisting of Artistic Directors Sabrina Mandell and Mark Jaster, as well as performers Karen Hansen, Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, and Alex Vernon, skillfully re-create multiple characters (and animals) who are part of a depression-era circus. Traditionally iconic scenes such as the tight wire, trapeze and human cannon ball are completely re-imagined through creative dance, music, pantomime, shadow puppetry and physical comedy.
Presented in a series of well-balanced, intriguing vignettes, sporadically interspersed with backstage scenes into the personal lives of the performers after the curtains have closed, each company member takes a turn as the ringmaster, playing many roles throughout the production, featuring a diverse assortment of acts, including Volga and Vlad Stikinski (the knife thrower and his wife from the “Old Country”), the Houdini-like escape artist, Professor Freeman, and his assistant, Lily Fields and her magnificent menagerie, Krug the Invincible and the high wire ballerina, Cassiopeia: Queen of the Air.
Jaster showcased his versatility and depth as seasoned physical actor by playing numerous circus animals, as well as Arnie, the little MC. Likewise, Mandell shined in her roles as Ruby Gallagher and Volga Stikinski. Grastorf showed off her jazzy vocal and dance skills as Wilhemena Vogel Brandt a/k/a The Human Phoenix in “I Don’t Want to Set the World On Fire.” Olmsted Thomas is delightfully entrancing and hilarious in a variety of roles from Cassiopeia, the tightrope artist in a tutu and umbrella, to “The Human Pretzel.” Vernon is heart-warming and engaging as a lonely man on stilts and comical as master escapologist Professor Freeman.
Impressively interwoven throughout the captivating circus collage is the one-woman “orchestra” and multi-sound effects section that is Karen Hansen. Not only does she expertly performs all of the instruments from violin to accordion to ukulele to drum to triangles, she creates the sound effects which add to the illusion of the scenes. Hansen also collaborates with the cast in performing several songs with the rest of the cast, even managing to recreate a human calliope (the six performers singing as one).
Imaginatively insightful and effortlessly entertaining, Happenstance’s Impossible!: A Happenstance Circus is truly theater at its most creative, lightly lifting, and temporarily transporting the hearts and minds of all ages to enchanting worlds both far and near.
Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, with no intermission.
Impossible! A Happenstance Circus plays through July 12, 2015 at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.