Review: Happenstance Theater’s ‘Slapstick Jukebox’ Is a Wacky Good Time

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Catch Happenstance Theater’s Slapstick Jukebox before it scoots away. Only five shows were planned for this weekend, so only the fast and the few will get the opportunity to watch this solid ensemble tear their insides up with laughter. This quintet has assembled, over the past few years, a collection of hysterically funny scenes that showcase their amazing physical comedy – think Flying Wallendas-quality acrobatic moves – delivered with a precision that is guaranteed to split your sides with laughter.

The cast of Slapstick Jukebox. Photo by Emma Jo Shatto.
The cast of Slapstick Jukebox. Photo by Emma Jo Shatto.

Actually, more than the five-some is involved. The entire audience participates in a series of ten scenes inspired by comic legends like Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chapman, the Marx Brothers, Lucy and Desi, and a dash of Houdini. Make that a big splash of Houdini. There’s a touch of old circus venues and Vaudeville, too. Producing Director Chris Pfingsten, while not onstage, is very much a presence. The lighting design is by Kris Thompson, sound design by Sabrina Mandell, set design and decoration by Alex Vernon, and exquisite costumes by Sabrina Mandell.

The stellar ensemble on stage – Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, and Alex Vernon – were born with rubber limbs and faces, tough skins, perfect balance, a steady sense of timing, and over-the-top theatrical (and farcical) talent. In addition to that, they all have terrific singing voices and sound-effects-makers, and an insane desire to stretch beyond human limits for a laugh or sight gag.

Save for a pair of curtains center stage that, under Kris Thompson’s lighting, segue from a rich purple to a deep red, the set is almost entirely matte black. The cast, too, is dressed in casual black tops and slim-cut pants or jeans with black shoes that serve as a base for their costumes.

The ensemble cast of Slapstick Jukebox. Photo courtesy of Happenstance Theater

On either side of the stage are tables bearing an interesting assemblage of head-wear: real top hats, fedoras, and cloches with small, rolled brims – and small racks of black clothing including variations on Victorian or early 20th-century attire, some accented with varying shades of red. The black and red theme adds a strong touch of elegance to the show’s ripples of wacky comedy. Stage left also has a small area containing a drum set, two vintage accordions, a brass fox hunting horn, and a variety of whistles and other noisemakers that haven’t been seen or heard from in four or more generations.

Among the ten routines in Slapstick Jukebox are scenes this crew has performed in previous Happenstance Theater productions. There is a lighthearted air of spontaneity in the fact that the cast does not know in which order they will be performing each scene. It is up to them to skip across the stage, pull on their costumes in view of the audience, gather their props, and leap into it.

The set slightly resembles an old-time jukebox. An audience member is asked to toss an imaginary coin at an ensemble member. A slapstick ballet ensues as one of the actors tries to catch it and flip it to another cast member. Finally, the coin goes into a slot. The audience member is asked to call out a number from one to ten. The appropriate card on the slot machine is turned around and the cast flows quickly into the scene. Among the ten scenes are “Summit,” which shows what not to do at the top of a tall mountain peak; “Escape Artist;” “Train,” make it NYC subway and most of us will relate; “Mirror,” an amazing mimed scene; “Croquet,” a smackdown of all those BBC series we’ve watched over the years; and “Sideshow” when Gwen Grastorf and Sarah Olmsted Thomas deftly pull off freaky Priscilla The Human Pretzel and Trinity Anne The Three Armed Wonder. And, you will never invite Alex Vernon and Gwen Grastorf to set your table after witnessing their wondrous acrobatics in “Les Meatballs.”

At the conclusion of each scene, one or more cast members cracks a few really groan-worthy puns. They were so over the top that this reviewer wrote them down to repeat later. After a particularly hysterical train scene they ask, “Why are train tracks always angry?” The reply is, “People are always crossing them.” Followed by the quip, “That’s off the rails.” Following an amazing, glacially slow-motion scene involving a very real pie topped with whipped cream they ask, “Why did the pie go to the dentist?” The answer is, “To get a filling. It went at tooth hurty” (Two-thirty). After the “Les Meatballs” scene they ask, “What do you call spaghetti in disguise?” The reply is, “The im-pasta.” This show, however, is not an “im-pasta.” It’s the real deal. Go see it while you can.

The Running Time varies from 70 to 90 minutes with no intermission. The nearest parking is the Cathedral Street Garage, 1311 Cathedral St. Its “evening event” parking rate is $12. General Admission tickets are $25, Senior/Artist/Military $20, and Student $15.

Slapstick Jukebox runs through March 4th, 2018, at Baltimore Theatre Project – 45 West Preston Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-8858 or buy them online.

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Wendi Winters
Wendi Winters is a writer, reporter, columnist and photographer - and a former NYC public relations executive. A good portion of her career has been in public relations - backed by solid experience in fashion retailing, wholesaling, textiles, marketing, advertising, design and promotion. She owned her own successful fashion public relations/advertising/special events/runway show production firm for seven years. As a journalist, she was the first freelancer to bring a journalism award home to The Capital - and then earned two more awards. Since May 2013, Ms. Winters has been a full time staff member at Capital Gazette Communications. Prior to that, she freelanced for the company for twelve years. Including her three weekly columns, she writes more than 250 articles annually. Her writing byline has appeared in Details Magazine, What's Up? Annapolis Magazine, and numerous others. She's been a feature writer for Associated Press Special Features and for Copley News Service. For years, her fashion critic columns ran in the NYC weeklies Manhattan Spirit and Our Town. Since moving to this area in 1999, as a D.C./Baltimore-area theatre critic, her reviews appeared in Theatre Spotlight and The Review. Plus, she was a Helen Hayes Awards nominator for two terms. Mother of four, she continues to be active as a Girl Scout leader and a regional church youth advisor. You bet she can make a mean S'More!