BWW Review: PANTHEON at Happenstance Theater
There's one thing I find comforting about theatre that I take care to remember: we will always find new ways to tell old stories. In particular, it seems like our theatrical landscape repurposes the stories of the Greeks at a breakneck pace. Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell's retelling of Eurydice and Orpheus, just won the Tony for Best Musical. In the District, Klytemnestra at Theater Alliance gorgeously reframed a maligned Queen through the lenses of Black ancestry. And now Happenstance Theater, utilizing devised, ensemble-based storytelling, is closing out their run of the dynamite Pantheon, a handful of myths and stories I thought I knew. What is Pantheon? The program notes that the title refers to both the Roman temple that transported us to stories, and to the array of Greek myths at our disposal. There's a few here you know, and maybe a few you might not. It wouldn't matter if you knew any of them or not, however, so clear is Happenstance's physical storytelling. It's hilarious and breathtaking and wholly unique.
Five actors and one musician make up the group, and throughout the 75-minute runtime - I cannot recall the last time I wished a show was longer - we're party to their creation and destruction and re-creation of some of Ovid's best. The program lists their aesthetic inspirations, and anyone who (like me) is a nut for tracking the collage-like process of Creating A Thing will love seeing how these muses are incorporated. The first thing you'll notice are the worker suits - everyone is heading to work at a factory in the 1940s, tasked with telling the tales of mortals and gods whose own flaws resembles ours. They're armed only with a couple of ladders (used in ways I've never seen ladders used!), a white sheet, a few wood slats and a musical score filled with numbers both original and traditional - there's Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and Bob Merrill and others.
Happenstance has been working and teaching and training together for a long time now, and you won't find a group of performers more in tune with one another. Each of them plays a number of roles - it's impossible to pick favorite moments, but Gwen Grastorf's affecting and wholesome spin on Orpheus has stuck with me. We pop in and out of his journey to retrieve Eurydice from the underworld, culminating in a display of shadow puppetry that genuinely had me wondering exactly how they did most of it; hats off to lighting designer Kris Thompson. Also memorable: in the lobby of Joe's Movement Emporium, before the show, patrons were permitted to submit questions to "the Oracle" via a little box. In one of the most impressive physical feats of the evening, Sabrina Mandell and Alex Vernon entered blindfolded and climbed a structure made from ladders, a plank and the white sheet. Watching them take their time entering and climbing was enthralling; I don't think I breathed once. Once they're on the plank, questions are pulled from the box, and one word at a time, one word after another, Mandell and Vernon answer them, still blindfolded and totally unaware of what the other will say; the results were funny, wise, satisfying and mystifying. A sample: "What caused the Great Depression?" "Not." "Enough." "Money." "And." "Too." "Much." "Money."
Everyone does amazing work; I've barely touched on Mark Jaster, whose salty and wise Charon ferries Orphesus to the underworld, or Sarah Olmstead Thomas' brilliant Helios, driver of sun chariots. This quintet of performers - who have pillaged the text together and devised it all themselves - are never better than when they're a whole. The puppet design is by Vernon, and though the primary garb are those workmen uniforms, there are a few functional and graceful costume changes designed by Mandell. And Craig Jaster, acting as composer, onstage musician and deliverer of prologues and epilogues, glues it all together. Jaster's music punctuates every action and vice versa. His original song for Orpheus, sung by Grastorf, hasn't left my ears. Jaster ends our evening with an ode to the workers, storytellers, human beings; those who suffer their own mistakes and still wake up the next day to try again. There is a tantalizingly short amount of time left to see the remarkable Pantheon - it plays through July 1st at Joe's Movement Emporium. Joe's is at 3309 Bunker Hill Road, in Mt. Rainier, MD. For tickets, call (301) 699-1819 or buy online.