Review: Happenstance Theater's POCKET MOXIE at Theater Project

A fascinating tribute to Vaudeville, running through November 13

By: Nov. 03, 2022
Review: Happenstance Theater's POCKET MOXIE at Theater Project

So I heard you're hungry for some unusual theater, but nothing too TOO edgy. It happens I know of something- Happenstance Theater at Theater Project- you love some well-done vintage, don't get all weird about puppets, and enjoy visiting the culturally rich city of Baltimore, am I right? Put a spring in your step and and a song in your heart- come catch a performance of POCKET MOXIE while it's playing through November 13th.

POCKET MOXIE is, essentially, a variety show. Conceived collectively by the five person ensemble, it is a nostalgic assemblage of un-modern morsels of entertainment. The semi-sepia color palette of the costuming (designed by Sabrina Mandell) which extends to the pair of painted three-panel screens (designed, built and painted by Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell) suggests "old-timey" even before anyone does anything. Then a train arrives with the performers and the show begins. Well, precisely, the performers become the train and the show's already begun before it officially starts.

Happenstance Theater 's splendidly skilled individuals are cultured, clever, and pristine, and rather more refined than the broad brash stomp and shimmy and seat-of-the-pants bravado I associate with classic vaudevillians. That is to say, I expect sawdust and sweat with my Vaudeville, and this troupe delivers neither but practically glows with high-end craftsmanship and precision.

The nine numbers accompanied by period pieces of music are joined by an additional six acts, plus interstitials. They're full of alleteration and puns, and some very bad jokes as well as very good ones. From the opening of "Moxie One Step" through the especially impressive timing of Sara Olmsted Thomas and Gwen Grastorf in "Pussycat Rag," the recurring antics of Mr. Short and Mr. Weisenheimer, Alex Vernon's brilliant bit of puppetry without any actual puppets, a triumphant display of epiglottal acrobatics, the spectacularly silly "Baby Sister Blues" to the finish of "The Song Is Ended," the Happenstance players present not a story with beginning middle and end, but a string of precious jewels suspended on a glittering thread, with matching train-shaped clasps at each end.

In Happenstance Theater's productions, there's always a lot going on, often in tiny moments or gestures. POCKET MOXIE share a version of Vaudeville that is not so much splash and dash as it is hypnotic, with a quiet urgency to make one sit forward and pay careful attention in order to not miss something significant. My companion remarks, "I'm surprised to find myself really engrossed in this very simple thing- No bells or whistles- it's VERY refreshing."

It IS simple- but also intricately complex. Not only is the troupe serving up classic vaudevillian staples and historical period songs, they layer on interpersonal relationships for the vaudevillian personages into the brief transitions between "acts," spread a flavor of answerability to financial realities, sprinkled well with the figurative wearing of many hats, (as well as wearing many actual hats), with a whiff of panic when things go awry. To be clear, there in fact ARE both bells and whistles in the production, but they're real, usable musical instruments rather than metaphoric flourishes. The orchestra "pit" which sits Downstage Left for the duration of the show also features Ukulele, Accordion, Drums along with a hatrack and a couple of stands which hold a number of stringed and percussion-esque instruments that I can't name. Watch for the transfer of hats in this area.

In POCKET MOXIE, there is no one individual who can be identified as primarily an accompanist. The individuals in Happenstance have, collectively, the musical prowess to take turns accompanying one another, and it's this which is perhaps the most seamless bit of the show. The "show" part of the performance is deliberately choppy, with a rapid pace that never feels frenetic; in fact, within many of the "numbers" are moments that are contemplative, quietly intense, breathlessly anticipatory or even lyrical. The short pieces are musical, comedic, full of pratfalls, or meant to astonish and amaze. There's plenty of singing in POCKET MOXIE, so much that it's got a cabaret quality to it, and it's delightful.

POCKET MOXIE is presented as a tribute to Vaudeville, but it's not a Vaudeville show. It's a show about Vaudevillians, and along with watching Vaudeville-styled acts, the audience is afforded a secret peek into the very lives of Vaudevillians, and the arcs of their days. At the same time, every movement of every performer in every moment of this too-short production is soaked with meaning and purpose. This requires creatives who defy definition, and who collectively are producing spectacles that likewise are impossible to categorize. They're indescribable partly because they're doing something no one else is doing, or could.

It is insufficient to say that Happenstance Theater is a group of talented performers, as they work like an organic organism and are fascinating to observe. Each of their shows has its own specific ethos, with something to say about contemporary culture, and a cornucopia of subtlety to ruminate later. A Happenstance show doesn't REQUIRE deep introspection, but it does invite it. Audience members who accept this invitation are rewarded with hours or days - sometimes years- of contemplation.

Give your eyes some old-fashioned candy and your brain something substantial to chew on by treating yourself to a performance of POCKET MOXIE. Bring a friend and go early, if you're able, in case you'd like to see it twice.

I usually arrive early to the Mount Royal area because I want to eat at the nearby Soup's On restaurant. One can find free street parking in the neighborhood, and paid parking is available in a garage across from the theater or in a lot on Charles Street, just south of Preston Street.

You'll need to scan a QR code to see the program, if you have the right software on your phone. If you don't, or if you're just a dinosaur like me, you can print one out beforehand, (or look at the program on your phone at any time) by pasting into your browser this link- While you're thus occupied in the lobby, if you think you'd like a beverage, enjoy it now, as there's no intermission in POCKET MOXIE, which runs about 75 minutes.

POCKET MOXIE runs at Theater Project through November 13th, 2022

Thursdays November 3 & 10 at 8 pm

Fridays November 4 & 12 at 8 pm

Saturdays November 5 & 12 at 3 pm

Saturdays November 5 & 12 at 8 pm

Sundays November 6 & 13 at 3 pm

Tickets for adults are $25; $20 for seniors/artists/military; $15 for students

Photo: Cast, Musicians, Writers, Costumers, Prop Builders and Roadies of Happenstance Theater's POCKET MOXIE, L to R: Alex Vernon, Sabrina Mandell, Sarah Olmstead, Mark Jaster and Gwen Gasdorf

Photo Credit: Wags Media