2018 Capital Fringe Review: ‘Barococo’

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Happenstance Theater, the much-lauded purveyors of cheekily sophisticated whimsy, have brought another original devised work to Fringe, and if it doesn’t tickle your funny bone, you might want to have that checked.

Happenstance’s distinctive theatrical style—honed for a dozen years now under the artistic co-directorship of Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell—entails highbrow clowning, lush design, witty lifting from history, lots of mime, minimal text, and a collective imagination that thinks nothing of mixing kooky and astute. The show now on the boards at Arena is called Barococo (a portmanteau from Baroque and Rococo). The periodish couture of it is shown in this promo photo, but really to be fully appreciated these erudite zanies must be seen in performance.

Karen Hansen (Doppio Gernelli Von Sharfenberghopf), Alex Vernon (Leslie Pmplemousee de Citron-Pressé), Sarah Olmsted Thomas (Dauphine Marionette), Sabrina Mandell (Olympia Stroganovskaya), Gwen Grastorf (Constance Blandford Plainview), and Mark Jaster (Astorio Cavalieri) in ‘Barococo.’ Photo courtesy of Happenstance Theater Company.

Barococo was conceived of as a spoof of the aristocracy in pre-Revolutionary France and, by insinuation, the one percent now. It’s a brilliant comic conceit and could not be more cathartically on time.

Stage right are a harpsichord and other instruments of the era, which during the show will be played euphoniously by Karen Hansen, musical director. Elsewhere are a table and two fencing foils that other members of the giftedly twisted ensemble—Mandell, Jaster, Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, and Alex Vernon—will shortly put to hilarious use.

The show opens with animated tableaux vivants, which play back as though on rewind. Handkerchiefs, a sword, a deck of cards, a book—the cast makes of simple props a sequence of nonsequiturs. It doesn’t make much sense, but its silliness is irresistible.

There follows a series of games—riddles, charades, hide and seek—with clever bits of dialogue (“Soon we will all be history!”). The sight gags, which I won’t spoil, are priceless, as are the puns and double entendres (to a cellist: “Touch the G string. That’s the spot”).

There are some lovely musical interludes as when a chamber ensemble joins Hanson, who plays multiple instruments ambidextrously. And the high point of the clowning is a pantomimed grande bouffe that becomes a slo-mo food fight and had the opening night audience howling.

Happenstance freely acknowledges (I’m paraphrasing) that the company subsumes substance to style on playful purpose. Yet the parodistic point of Barococo becomes deliciously explicit at the end, when the elite get their comeuppance, albeit comedically (“You cannot starve the people and not expect to pay”).

Perhaps because this piece is brand-new, it feels slightly uneven. The majority of the passages are polished to perfection, but a few seem still tentative in timing and intent. For instance, in the opening moments, the characters play “what’s going on here?” uncertainty apparently for laughs, but it doesn’t land as such; it’s just unsure. This I’d bet will get better during the Fringe run. For the most part, be assured: Barococo plays with a pace and panache that make it a pastel parfait of frothy fun.

Running Time: 60 minutes, with no intermission.

Barococo plays through July 22, 2018, at Arena Stage, the Mead Center for American Theater: Cradle – 1101 6th Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, buy them at the venue, or purchase them online.

Rating: 

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.