Happenstance Theater has struck gold again with its cabaret series. With its latest installment, Cabaret Noir, the company has set its sights on the shadowy, sexy world of film noir. Film noir was a genre/era of filmmaking that reached its height in the 40s and 50s. Noir was characterized by “femme fatales and fedoras, trench coats and torch songs, intrigue and suspense,” as described in the literature of this company – but here with a comic twist. One of the most striking elements of film noir was the use of lighting for these movies that were primarily shot in black and white. Lighting designer Kris Thompson has brilliantly applied this sensibility, bringing it to live theater with over 100+ lighting cues that capture the mood of those films.
You can be guaranteed that any Happenstance production will be an innovative and delightful evening of theater and ‘Cabaret Noir’ is no exception.
The cast includes the same wonderful group of multi-talented actors and as well as some favorite moments that are trademark Happenstance that never disappoint. This “film noir inspired theatrical montage” appears to be a random but there is a clever thread (or two) running throughout that ties everything neatly together.
Karen Hansen is a one-man band and plays a character known as Shorty – she is a marvel at providing sound effects, musical arrangements and compositions, while playing multiple instruments at the same time. One can hear the unmistakable theme of the film noir classic “Laura” weaved into the music mix.
Mark Jaster, co-artistic director with his wife and partner, Sabrina Mandell, Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon move effortlessly in and out of multiple characters and are masters at pantomime, singing, dancing – and most effectively – physical comedy. Mandell also continues to create an array of stunning era costumes with a pallet of greys and blacks with reds to provide the pop. The shadow puppets designed by Vernon are magical, notably the newspaper “puppets” that float and fly across the stage, giving a sense of loneliness and desolation. The newspapers are operated by the actors who are skilled at melting into the background and creating the illusion.
Something is afoot at the Sinclair Seafood Cannery involving corruption, murder, illicit affairs and the mayor. Small clues are given at the beginning – rolling hubcap, a woman with something wrapped in a newspaper, and a newspaper caught in the wind. They will appear again. There is a wonderful reoccurring storyline of a sad sack (Vernon) attempting to kill himself by jumping off a tall building ledge. His attempts are thwarted by a series of different characters who join him for one reason or another, some we have seen before. When it seems that he has found love and redemption, the lady accidentally slips and falls. He inadvertently becomes suspect in a murder. The clues are pieces of clothing that the others actors, acting as the wind, have taken from the ledge jumpers. Don’t forget to look for the red herring.
When the jumper seeks refuge in a bar, we are treated to classic Happenstance – a brilliant and hilarious slapstick bar brawl done in slow motion and involves all of the actors. It is pure artistry. We are also treated to a torch song or two and dance numbers with “Falling in Love Again,” “Take the Blame on Mame,” a tuneful and literal battle of the sexes in “Love Me or Leave Me” and a femme fatale standoff between Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Gwen Grastorf. To go any further would spoil all the delightful surprises and gags that that run throughout the show.
There seems to be a bit less audience interaction that previous shows and the show ends on a somber note with a slow, serious dance that doesn’t quite fit all that has come before. But no matter. You can be guaranteed that any Happenstance production will be an innovative and delightful evening of theater and Cabaret Noir is no exception.
Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes with no intermission.
Happenstance Theater’s Cabaret Noir plays through November 15, 2015 at Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 West Preston Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets can be purchased online or at the box office an hour before the performance.