Review: Impossible! A Happenstance Circus at Happenstance Theatre

TheatreBloom rating:

Impossible is only in the mind. That is, of course, until it takes to the stage with Happenstance Theatre. Remounting their very successful Impossible! A Happenstance Circus, the movement-based ensemble company’s show is received to great acclaim at Round House Theatre Bethesda this summer. Truly investing the imagination of the audience into their work, the company— consisting of the two co-founders and four additional core performers— scales new heights with their mime work, their extraordinary physicality, and overall sense of showmanship when it comes to performance.

Impossible! A Happenstance Circus
Impossible! A Happenstance Circus Happenstance Theatre

The set is simplistic; a rustic tent front with the title of the show lit in old-fashioned traveling tent bulbs. Company members Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, and Alex Vernon lay the groundwork for their imaginative show with this basic layout. Like the rest of the show the scenery is a hinted spark, a subtle trigger to engage the imagination in all of the impressive feats that await the mind in this performance.

To ask one’s audience to suspend their disbelief is a common enough practice in the theatre. Happenstance Theatre takes that notion to a higher standard with the large leaps of faith that are to be taken to enjoy their show. The brilliance of the six performers and their concept in Impossible! is that they are so fully engaged with the show and all it entails that they captivate the audience’s mind and the imagination fills in the gaps. You see the spectacle and grandeur of this performance as though you were gifted with the eyes of a child; still believing in magic and wonder because of how the performers ground themselves in this fantastical reality of movement-based performance that they have created. Simple slight of hands and over-reactive facial responses are transformed into flying acrobats and daring flame-eaters. There are dozens of glorious moments like this all throughout the performance; a true art form lively and mesmerizing.

The ensemble of "Impossible! A Happenstance Circus"
The ensemble of “Impossible! A Happenstance Circus” Happenstance Theatre

Known for their fluid movements, a Happenstance show would not be complete without a “slow-motion” scene. Although the iconic “Croquet” number is absent from this particular production, the flawless and hysterical motion-capture of a pie-fight gone wrong is featured near the end of the production, branding the show a complete Happenstance success. Moments like the pie-fight, and many other scenes and skits that are based heavily if not solely around the physicality of the performers is what makes this show and other produced by the company a unique and rewarding theatrical experience. 

The other hallmark of their work is the music, arranged and composed by company member Karen Hansen. Playing a dozen or so different instruments throughout the performance, Hansen impresses with her versatile talent again and again. She even leads a full company strum along on ukulele; a most astonishing number as all six performers play on their own instruments in perfect harmony with one another. Whether it’s squeezebox, a string, a brass, or some sort of percussion, Hansen’s musical talent (including her singing ability) seems to know no bounds. Working as a crucial element to tie scenes and movement together, the music adds that finished layer of a complete show to the performance. 

The circus contains everything one expects from such a spectacle. Spellbinding magic, daring feats, and of course personalities beyond the wildest imaginations of even the most creative story teller. These personalities— like sweet Ruby Gallagher, everyone’s flying sweetheart (played by Sabrina Mandell), or Arnie and his astonishing side show (played by Mark Jaster)— are steeped deep into the physicality of the performers and are vividly expressed not only through their faces, and occasionally their voices, but through their entire bodies. It is this consistency of bodily involvement that sets a Happenstance show apart from other performance-based pieces; commitment and consistency.

Sarah Olmsted Thomas as Cassiopeia: Queen of the Air in Impossible! A Happenstance Circus
Sarah Olmsted Thomas as Cassiopeia: Queen of the Air in Impossible! A Happenstance Circus Happenstance Theatre

Sarah Olmsted Thomas, like the rest of the performers, embodies several characters throughout the show. Her most memorable by far is the “opening act” of the circus: ‘Cassiopeia: Queen of the Air.’ An illusion, but a glorious one, Thomas ascends a ladder to the high wire and engrosses the audience with her routine. The avian quality expressed in her physicality here is reminiscent of a graceful and yet simultaneously clumsy and curious ostrich. It’s a wondrous thing to behold the way her body balances the animal-spirit inspiration in this particular creation. Her silent character, Professor Freeman’s assistant, during the escapist routine builds the audience’s tension as the Master Escapologist (Alex Vernon) defies device after invisible restraining device. It is Thomas’ vivid facial responses that cue the audience to how they should respond in this ultimately hilarious routine.

Vernon becomes of a master of many arts in this production. Literal stilt-walker, with exceptional grace and balance, as well as startling master of escapist illusions, it’s the more simplistic moments that draw the eye to Vernon’s role in the show. Crafted throughout the performance are several heartfelt and truly touching moments of real life behind the curtain. Vernon has one of these moments when he creates simple shadow puppets with an elephant toward the end of the performance. An endearing sentiment is imbued into these little flickers of real life and it tugs at the heartstrings quite soundly.

The ensemble of "Impossible! A Happenstance Circus"
The ensemble of “Impossible! A Happenstance Circus” Happenstance Theatre

Gwen Grastorf brings her opera diva character front and center for the circus. Wilhemena Vogel Brandt, The Human Phoenix, entreats the audience to a lovely song and sassy dance number as she plays with fire— twirling it, slinging it, swallowing it. Grastorf also performs as Lily Fields, the animal tamer with quite the eclectic collection she refers to as her “Magnificent Menagerie.” This scene in particular is a crowd-pleaser as it showcases the master of mime himself, Mark Jaster, presenting three unique personalities all through silent mime work.

Mark Jaster as the Ring Master at Impossible! A Happenstance Cirucs
Mark Jaster as the Ring Master at Impossible! A Happenstance Cirucs Happenstance Theatre

Jaster, who is becoming the next generation of stellar mime artists, presents three distinct animal personas during the ‘Magnificent Menagerie’ scene, each one carrying a different energy at different points in his physical expression of them. The monkey is cheeky and playful, the horse is noble but skittish, and the lion is ferocious yet easily subdued. To labor on in words about Jaster’s ability to perfect the work of mime would do him a disservice, it simply must be seen to be believed. In addition to his mime work, Jaster brings vivacious life to his spoken characters in the performance as well. Arnie the Carnie and his astonishing side show is an uproarious number which gets that brassy crass character that is all too familiar out into the open as he barks about his side show. Constantly flipping between talking and silent characters, his portrayal of Vlad, in “Volga & Vlad Stikinski: Knife Throwers from the Old Country” is one of several perfect scenes played opposite Sabrina Mandell.

Mandell, like Jaster, is the company Co-Founder, and brings a radiant spirit to each role she plays in the performance. They banter well with each other, particularly in the knife-throwing routine. This scene in particular allows Mandell to hone in on the mood of the audience, guiding it and reflecting the fun she’s having so that we all can share in the merriment. Her mirror shenanigans— another scene played opposite Jaster— reveal her true clownish nature (and thorough clown training.) An overall delight on the stage, Mandell brightens up all the moments she lives in (and provides exceptionally impressive costumes for the company to boot.)

The show is filled with sensational moments that are brilliant to behold; group moments, solo moments, each one pumped full of magic and life. The circus is not to be missed, for much like time, it too shall pack up and move on all too quickly!  

Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission

Impossible! A Happenstance Circus plays through July 12, 2015 at Happenstance Theatre currently playing at Round House Theatre Bethesda— 4545 East-West Highway in Bethesda, MD. For tickets call the box office at (240) 644-1100 or purchase them online.

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