The edge of darkened days inspired by death has arrived in Happenstance Theatre’s production of their 2nd Annual Cabaret Macabre. Playing at the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, MD, this unique limited engagement is a perfect celebration of darkness with humor, dance and everything one expects from a cabaret style performance. Conceptualized as a theatrical collage devised by the entire ensemble the performance does not disappoint. With a uniquely talented cast: Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, Karen Hansen, Gwen Grastorf, Matthew Pauli, and Esther Williamson; the show provides everything from singing and dancing to physical comedy and dark haunting moments that are simply to die for.
With nothing more than a tightly focused spotlight on the black sign coated in white spidery scrawl displaying the show’s namesake, the performance is set in a vast black-box style stage and everything else is provided by the performers and their eccentric and macabre outfits. While not having a customer, a large amount of the creative costumes were provided by Sabrina Mandell, making the piece even more unique as she outfitted the ensemble. From bright mint-striped dresses for the girl twins and blue sailor-style outfits for the boy twins during the “Academy for Precocious Twins” sketches, to the grim black dresses and veils of the mourners, the outfits set the mood in a gothic, haunting performance piece.
The show is filled with stunning images, each created by different performers. A powerful one that comes to mind is the two maids, (Esther Williamson and Gwen Grastorf) entering the stage together while an upbeat yet dreadful tune is being played on the piano, cello, and saw-blade. Williamson and Grastorf stop, face the audience, and with gruesome smiles the shriek in unison, “Macbeth!” and then run off-stage. A more haunting image occurs while Karen Hansen plays the cello, Esther Williamson plays piano, Mark Jaster plays the saw-blade to a lively yet somewhat eerie Shubert tune and Matthew Pauli, dressed as an orderly, pushes an antiquated wicker wheelchair onto stage. There is a woman bound in the chair, clearly dead, yet he stops to fix her hand, kisses her cheek, and slowly pushes her off-stage as the Shubert tune continues.
The performers, and in particular Mark Jaster, are very physically expressive. Jaster has many mini segments performing as a mannequin. He contorts himself into strange positions to mimic the mannequins, but watch his eyes; they are full of life and could be their own character. The maids (Williamson and Grastorf) have a synchronization that makes you believe they are two puppets being controlled by one master. During a sketch where they are hanging out laundry and discussing the neighbor who was blown to bits by his son, they fold in unison, their movements perfectly timed. But the best physicality happens during croquet. Karen Hansen is reading from a guide about the rules of croquet while Mandell, Jaster, Pauli, and Williamson are outfitted in traditional player’s uniforms holding mallets. As Hansen reads drolly through the rules, the players take to a slow-motion massacre, swinging their mallets with impeccable timing and brilliant reactions of those being hit. At first it starts out in a 3-Stooges comedy style, but the swings grow more violent and the injuries more severe. This happens in complete silence, save for Hansen’s narration, and is executed with such animation both in the actor’s faces and their physical gestures as they fall all over the stage that you can’t take your eyes off it. You even lose track of what Hansen is saying because they’re so involved in murdering each other. It is a true show of genius.
A cabaret show wouldn’t be complete without singing and of course Cabaret Macabre is no exception. There are jaunty little tunes that are quite frightening. Sabrina Mandell sings a folklore type shanty early in the show, with haunting eyes so lost in the song she almost looks dead. But later Mandell appears skipping rope in a hideous and childish green dress, chanting a lively children’s rhyme about Polly and Suzie that ends in a morbid fashion. During the song that has everyone on stage singing, while the players waltz to an upbeat dirge, Gwen Grastorf walks slowly across the stage in her maid’s outfit carrying a serving tray and she belts a high note wailing of agony. Grastorf fills her belted note with such sorrow that you’ll feel the shivers shoot up your spine. There’s a quick 1940’s style love ballad sang by Matthew Pauli about being a cannibal in love that’s also fairly impressive.
But the pièce de résistance of any cabaret performance is the dancing. And dance they do. The finale speaks volumes the entire company presents a dark “Danse Macabre” where each member of the ensemble is donned in dark clothes, mainly the window’s dresses veils, and dark coattails and top hats. They move as one and bring the sense that death is coming. Watch out for Esther Williamson and Gwen Grastorf as the two maids in their dance number “Secret.” They dance in an almost dueling format, spinning around each other, occasionally locking arms with each other as they sing an eerie tune about keeping secrets, ensuring that the only way to keep a secret is if the other one is dead. Watch their eyes as they lock glares with each other and finish the number, it is spine-tingling!
So come visit the dark side, and don’t keep this show a secret— because one of you might end up dead.
Cabaret Macabre presented by Happenstance Theatre runs through November 13, 2011 at Round House Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring Maryland. For tickets, call the box office (240) 644-1100. or purchase them online.