Review: ‘Cabaret Noir’ by Happenstance Theater

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The phrase “film noir” evokes both a particular sub-genre of the crime film as well as a particular era. Inspired by the moody expressionist dramas of the silent era that had come to an end a generation prior, the hardboiled detective fiction of novels and pulp magazines, and the way World War II had exposed the fragility of civilization, it may have seemed like an infusion of gritty realism into the way crime stories were portrayed on screen. Decades later, its artifice stands out: the stylized use of light, shadow, and smoke, peculiar accents that tell the audience everything they need to know about the character, a certain blunt poetry, big city hustle and bustle, cynical worlds populated by anti-hero detectives, femmes fatales, plucky heroines, endangered innocence, and authority figures who have managed to keep their corruption hidden for long enough.

Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon in Cabaret Noir. Photo by Margaret Hart.
Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon in Cabaret Noir. Photo by Margaret Hart.

Drawing inspiration from how the noir genre so often used seedy nightclubs and cabarets as settings, Happenstance Theater has wrought Cabaret Noir – an affectionate parody to the genre through song, skits, and virtuoso clowning.

Unlike the strict hierarchies and divisions of labor that define “legitimate” theater, Happenstance specializes in devised work, in which even with Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell as Co-Artistic Directors, the contributions of their collaborators are integral at every step of the creative process.

A number of through-lines run through the show. There is the desperate man (Alex Vernon) on a window ledge whose repeated attempts to dash himself upon the street below are, much like one of the hapless protagonists of a Don Martin cartoon in Mad Magazine, continuously interrupted by unexpected visitors and mischievous winds. There is also the tale of a fugitive fish magnate on the lam (Jaster) due to his involvement with the scandals surrounding the heartless unnamed city’s unnamed mayor. While these episodes eventually cross over, it’s not to weave a tightly wound mystery, but to explore the genre’s components by way of their kinesthetic, verbal, and musical inventiveness.

Our current cultural moment comes to the forefront by way of allegory as the press secretary of a film studio (Gwen Grastorf) announces their plan to revive the career of a star of the silent era (Jaster). We are entertained by the commentary on the radical shift in acting styles as the silent era ended and the talkies became the newest, glitziest thing (few stars managed to navigate the change) and in turn, how innovations of the past become clichés, becoming the province of either mockery or nostalgia. But it also observes how today battle lines have been drawn according to whether we can still stomach the boorish, and at times abusive, even criminal, behavior of celebrities and other influential figures.

Mandell, Thomas, and Gwen Gastorf all take their turns as femmes fatales and nightclub singers – they also have a delightfully hilarious ensemble role as the typesetting pool at a major metropolitan newspaper (with Vernon playing their manager) as reports on the previous skits are called in over the phone. The typewriters don’t just function as props, but as percussion instruments whose tapping, clacking, and carriage returns provide music both for the weather and the mayor’s scandalous affairs.

Sabrina Mandell, Alex Vernon, Mark Jaster, Gwen Grastorf, and Sarah Olmsted Thomas in Cabaret Noir. Photo by Manaf Azzam.
Sabrina Mandell, Alex Vernon, Mark Jaster, Gwen Grastorf, and Sarah Olmsted Thomas in Cabaret Noir. Photo by Manaf Azzam.

Of course, what makes Cabaret Noir more than just an evening of genre parody is that this ensemble has cultivated skills and a spirit of collaboration simply not in the wheelhouse of most companies.There’s the mime technique that gives invisible windows the illusion of weight as they are opened, or turns a bare stage into the side of a building overlooking a street below, or gives impact in a brief mimeodrama about the urban commute in the midst of a downpour. It’s this skill with mime (Jaster was a teaching assistant for Marcel Marceau) that makes the slapstick climax of the evening so uproariously effective: an absurdly elaborate five-way bar-room brawl happens in slow motion in which every eye-movement, every scrunched up face, every twist of the spine is choreographed to induce maximum laughter from the audience. In film or television, much of this would be accomplished in post-production either in an editing room or special-effects studio – but with Happenstance, it’s happening live, and the actors are the special effects.

Multi-instrumentalist Karen Hansen (primarily on piano, but also playing muted-trumpet, trombone, accordion, and cello and occasionally joined by other members of the ensemble) provides both original compositions and arrangements of songs from composers ranging from Lerner & Hollander, Tom Waits, Thelonious Monk, Randy Newman and Johnny Mercer. Her rhythms and harmonic vocabulary are perfectly suited both for the ensemble’s stage movement and the various moods their genre parody evokes. On her piano stool, in her on-stage persona as “Shorty McHansen,” Hansen is a snarky foil to the ensemble who also provides sly conspiratorial asides to the audience.

Cabaret Noir doesn’t just a poke fun at the genre – the artists in Happenstance are also conscious that amongst noir’s deeper themes are decay and death, and in this show that is perhaps most sublimely portrayed in brief puppet interludes (designed by Vernon) in which wrinkled newspapers dance on the wind, serving as a metaphor for the impermanence of life, fame, adulation, and infamy as yesterday’s news becomes litter – much as what was once the height of popular culture disappears into the liminal awareness of someone else’s nostalgia.

Mandell doubles as the costume designer for Cabaret Noir, attentively recreating the fashions of the film genre: double-breasted suits and fedoras, women’s hats that, like their hairstyles, are held in place through an elaborate system of hairpins, square-shouldered dresses with big buttons, with overcoats and pea coats keeping the characters from getting soaked by the ever-present imaginary rain.

Lighting Designer Kevin Boyce is wonderfully minimalist, creating stylized chiaroscuro and silhouettes, fading actors into shadows or causing dresses and lipstick to shine as necessary. But he also makes creative use of practical lighting – placing lamps into the ensemble’s hands to recreate iconic set pieces of film noir: the grilling of suspects down at the station, oncoming headlights on a dark road, and shady characters meeting under a lamp post.

Cabaret Noir is a revue of sophisticated, and often beautiful, clowning – and a laughter-inducing trip through the ever-changing conventions of the lively arts.

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.

Cabaret Noir plays through April 15, 2018, at Joe’s Movement Emporium –  3309 Bunker Hill Road in Mt. Rainier, MD. For tickets, purchase at the venue or order online.