BWW Reviews: Happenstance's 'Vanitas' Their Production Yet

By: Apr. 09, 2013
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Over the years, Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell have established Happenstance as one of the most inventive, genuinely spontaneous companies in town. Their sources of inspiration are diverse, likewise the shows that develop (literally) before our eyes. Based on the principle of physical improvisation, their brand of Devised Theater (quite distinct from that bane of critics, the "work in progress") can give you the delight of witnessing seasoned artists in the process of discovery, development and revision. The results are often confusing and challenge us to abandon our innate desire to make sense of things, inviting us simply to let the ensemble go about their wonderful work. Not for nothing do they feature a sample from the Talking Heads at their curtain call ...

With "Vanitas" Happenstance stretches the boundaries once again, using the symbolic, skull-inflected still lives of the Dutch Masters as a launching pad for a series of vignettes, images, tableaux vivants, set to Karen Hansen's haunting live musical score, all devoted to the inevitability of death.

Or so the program says-the sheer variety of visual and aural material here can leave you perplexed, wondering whether there was a point to it, or whether a "point" was what we should have been looking for in the first place. The slapstick and gentle humor that is their trademark is here in small doses, but in this production there is a palpable yearning to be more than just amusing.

This is a classic example of a show that scatters its props, moves and poses in the frame, inviting you to rearrange them into a collage that best suits your frame of mind on the particular night you go to see it. The ensemble has even noted, provocatively, that they are likely to alter their performances in response to their audiences and critics-although I'm not sure I'm comfortable with meddling here myself.

If you want some sense of what's in store, I highly recommend you visit their production blog , and scroll through their earlier posts to get a glimpse of the paintings that inspired their work, images of the set and props in preparation, vimeos of rehearsals, etc. Not only is it worth the visit in its own right, it might help you to decide whether "Vanitas" is the show for you.

Framing the piece is an intricately stitched performance by Gwen Grastorf, Sarah OlmstEd Thomas and Alex Vernon as the Fates-mythical deities whose task was to unspool, measure and cut the thread of our lives. In a nod to the Bible the Fates also dabble in pottery, and in a truly inspired routine we see them shaping, erecting (and even emboweling) Mark Jaster as the Fool. Sabrina Mandell's striking red hair invites us to see a bit of Elizabeth I in her Queen, as she is accosted by Jaster's Fool-whose given name, Yorick, is one of many inside references here.

With movable set pieces that offer us now landscapes, and now the plain wooden interior of a curiosity box, characters move in and out of focus adopting often contradictory roles, but always with poise. Not all of Happenstance's experiments here succeed to my mind, but then again the mind has to do with it is a big question. Physical theatre, by its very nature, is distinct from the cerebral stuff we have grown accustomed to: Happenstance seems intent on helping us develop a different apparatus for "reading" and the sense resides ultimately in some new faculty, as yet undiscovered.

Running Time: 75 minutes

Performances are March 29-April 14 at the Roundhouse Theatre, Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD.

Tickets can be ordered by calling 240-644-1100, or email:


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