Like an old friend autumn greats Baltimore with its crisp chilly nights, its darkened spirits and shades of Halloween, and its spine-tingling tales of doom and gloom. So too does Happenstance Theater great its faithful followers on its annual return to Baltimore Theatre Project. Cabaret Macabre: The Return Visit materializes from the theatrical ether to haunt, mesmerize, and enchant its audience, both newcomers and fond friends. A living theatrical collage of macabre inspiration in fluid, poetic movement, The Return Visit is an intimate caress of darkness, both familiar in its dark mystique and surprisingly exciting with new twists and turns.
Nods of praise all across the creative board are well deserved of Lighting Designer Kris Thompson and Costume Confabulator Sabrina Mandell. The aesthetic ties richly into the multitude of macabre inspirations that influences the performance. Both Thompson’s use of lighting and shadow helps to create intimate vignettes of the spooky variety, finding the humor in those more light-hearted and the severity in those with deep gravitational pull. Mandell approaches the piece in a similar vein, using more white than seen in previous incarnations, but the effect is a delicate blend of light, color, and its absence which easily sets the tone for the evening.
Working together as the tremendous ensemble that they are, Happenstance Theater Company members Gwen Grastorf, Karen Hansen, Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, and Alex Vernon provide 75 minutes of delightful entertainment that is perfect for the macabre season of autumn. Serving as the vanguard to vivacious clown work, the harbinger of Halloween, and the herald of kinetic theatrics, the company brings Cabaret Macabre: The Return Visit to the stage in ways that entreat the audience to each member’s unique performance specialty as well as the combined efforts of the ensemble, moving, singing, and performing as one fluid unit.
Master Mime Mark Jaster reprises, among other vignettes, his silent imitation of ‘Mannequins.’ This snippet of the collage is easily identified as a crowd favorite and showcases Jaster’s impressive ability to emote and communicate through the simplest of gestures and facial expressions. Sabrina Mandell, the princess of unpleasantness, delves deep into the maniacal mindset of her juvenile character who skips rope to morbid rhymes and plays just a bit too deviously with her dollies. There is a delectably unsavory through-line with these dollies and two characters from ‘The Broken Locket’, played by Alex Vernon ad Sarah Olmsted Thomas.
Both Thomas and Vernon use their adroit bodies against Thompson’s subtle lighting in shades of turquoise to create the morose illusion of struggling to swim as they sink blissfully into drowning. This, among a great many other moments, showcases their physical prowess with terrific consistency. Gwen Grastorf can be seen reprising her iconic character of the embittered maid. With new levels of sneaky snark and more pop-ups than usual, Grastorf is easily spotted throughout the production, adding her own brand of mischief to the mayhem.
Stunning the audience, awing them, and impressing them with over half a dozen weird and wonderful instruments— including the return of the double-trumpet (a Hansen original concoction), Music Composer and Arranger Karen Hansen underscores a great many moments in the grim collage with orchestrations most appropriate. Accompanied occasionally by Jaster on saw, Hansen works the musical elements into the show as if they were unique and quirky characters all their own.
When the company comes together to bounce through numbers like “Nix on the Glow-Worm, Lena!” or “The Sneak” there is a fabulous chemistry among them that adds a level of enthusiasm and engagement for the audience as they watch and tap their toes along in the house. Staring with the chaotic mayhem of the mural of madness that is about to ensue and ending with the tried and true Danse Macabre, which sends shivers up the spine, there is something unspeakably beautiful about all of the darkness expressed through movement in this show.
Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission
Cabaret Macabre: The Return Visit plays through November 13, 2016 with Happenstance Theatre at The Baltimore Theatre Project— 45 W. Preston Street in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call (410) 752-8558 or purchase them online.