Manifesto! at Happenstance Theatre

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Dada: (noun) an avant-garde art movement of the early 20th century centered in Zurich, New York, and Paris developed in reaction to Word War I, consisting of artists who rejected logic, reason, and aestheticism of modern capitalist society, promoting instead anti-bourgeois ideals through irrationality and nonsense.

For those who the parameters of the art form seem slightly vague (or for those who just plain slept through that particular art history class), DC based Happenstance Theatre brings a master class on the subject to Baltimore Theatre Project. An evolving piece first developed in 2008, Manifesto! originated at the Capital Fringe Festival in DC, then performed at the NY Clown Festival and again at the 2011 Capital Fringe, with different casts and material adapted to life and current events at the times. Reviving it again in today’s ugly and disillusioned political atmosphere, applying lessons we have learned about our government and society in the most recent years, as the original Dadaists intended, delivers surprisingly contemporary insights.

Happenstance Theatre performing for Manisfesto! at Baltimore Theatre ProjectHappenstance Theatre
Happenstance Theatre performing for Manisfesto! at Baltimore Theatre Project

Crediting no author or director (Happenstance’s mission is “a commitment to performer-created visual, poetic theatre”, listing the six member company as “responsible for crafting all aspects of their work from conception to realization”, with company members Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell billed as artistic co-directors), the dedication of the company to their mission and their material is highly evident. The book of the show is drawn from the actual words and passages from manifestos of movements during the post WWI era including Futurists, Communists, Capitalists, and Dadaists themselves, peppered with a few cheeky musical interpolations like Gene Buck and Dave Stamper’s “Futuristic Girl” and a slyly reworked Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to DaDa”.

Happenstance takes these words and songs and places them in the extremely capable hands of the various characters who inhabit the Cabaret ReVoltaire (a twisted salute to Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire, the founding home of Dadaism), an establishment “run by clowns and frequented by visionaries”, for a surreal adventure traversing time, philosophy, and various other boundaries one is used to encountering in traditional theatrical endeavors. If your theatrical tastes lean towards your grandmother’s church basement production or the dinner theatre that plies you with cheap roast beef and expensive sugary show drinks in souvenir goblets, this may not be your night out. For those who are willing to check their expectations and sensibilities at the door and jump blindly onto a runaway surrealistic express through the ideologies of the last century, it’s a fascinating trip.

Manifesto! is less of a show and more of an experience, functioning on almost every level starting with the mocking punctuation of the title (a jab at commercial musical theatre marketing overkill, from Oklahoma! and Oliver! all the way to last season’s self-depricating Disaster!) to the program bios of the company composed with winks and nods to all things Dada. Structured as an evening in a cabaret featuring acts of ideas and expression with no real beginning or end, the evening is likewise populated by six talented and very dedicated performers (artistic co-directors Jaster and Mandell, along with the equally accomplished Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Alex Vernon, and Michael Winch) who create a multi-sensory interpretation of the multi-faceted world of Dada in vignettes that touch upon not only the previously mentioned words of the manifestos, but music, art, fashion, the occasional parlour trick, and various other cultural and institutional trappings of our societies past, present, and (implied) future. Their inspired selections of text and art draw occasionally strong, resonant responses in this modern era of political and corporate disillusionment, from Trump economics, big pharmacy, big banking, Obamacare, and every -gate scandal and societal -ism under the sun. As iconic (decidedly non-dadaist) composer/performer Peter Allen sang, it most certainly appears that  “Everything Old is New Again”.

Sarah Olmsted Thomas (left) and Alex Vernon (right) in Manifesto!Margaret Hart Photography
Sarah Olmsted Thomas (left) and Alex Vernon (right) in Manifesto!

To critique individual performances in this production is impossible, but for the perfect reason. Jaster, Mandell, Grastorf, Thomas, Vernon, and Winch, although billed as different stock personas, all distinct aspects of Dadaism, are the unique troupe that functions not as a group of performers, but as one finely tuned machine that churns out 60 minutes of Dada redux, the ultimate ensemble accomplishment. Their physical and comic timing as a unit is precise and rapier sharp. To credit one for standing out vocally or comically in a piece that strips them of all the conventions traditionally used to critique would be like trying to pick out a favorite star instead of appreciating the constellation, or a particular number on a clock-face instead of telling time. They all fully embrace the material and embody the principles that drive it, playing off, to, and with each other as the broken laws of the form demand. Let it be clearly stated that this piece would be deadly in the hands of performers any less versed and dedicated to the implicit understanding of Dada.

The technical designers are all gamely on board with slick contributions. Lighting Designer Kris Thompson keeps the lights up on the audience throughout the performance as well as controlling the specialty theatrical lighting on stage, as it would be in a real cabaret. Costume Designer Mandell provides a visual buffet of artistic and fashion styles pertinent to the spirit of the period in a pleasing palette of complex warm tones (not red and orange and yellow, but brick and salmon and apricot). She deserves special note for her creation she dons as “Futuristic Girl”, a visceral statement of various fashion and artistic motifs of the era that combine into a purposely organized mess, reminiscent of a Bob Mackie masterpiece from a hilarious Carol Burnett skit. Winch as Sound Director masterfully blends live music, recorded pieces, and spoken and sung vocals. So balanced is his work in fact, that this critic still questions whether a gramophone on the set played actual music or was piped over with a recorded track.

Mark Jaster (left), Gwen Grastorf (center),, and Sabrina Mandell (right) in Manifesto!Margaret Hart Photography
Mark Jaster (left), Gwen Grastorf (center),, and Sabrina Mandell (right) in Manifesto!

For the unfamiliar, it is hard to describe what to expect. It may even be hard to explain what was witnessed, but suffice it to say that the experience is unique. Briskly paced at an eventfully packed mere 60 minutes, perhaps the best way to describe Manifesto! is in their own words of the last lines of Happenstance’s very mission: “to elevate the moment when performers and audience meet, to lift the encounter beyond the daily and pedestrian into the realms of dreams, poetry, and art.” An evening in their realm will indeed encourage you to open your mind and flood your senses, and not entirely by happenstance.

Running Time: Approximately 60 minutes with no intermission

Manifesto! plays through November 12, 2017 with Happenstance Theatre at The Baltimore Theatre Project— 45 W. Preston Street in the Mount Vernon borough of Baltimore, MD. For tickets call (410) 752-8558 or purchase them online.


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