A phalanx of workers, male and female, walking in a stylized manner recalling Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction classic Metropolis cross the stage dressed in light blue coveralls. Their attire evokes Works Progress Administration murals and posters that extolled the heroism of America’s industrial workers during the New Deal. One kicks off the action with an address to the audience: “O, workers, destroyers and builders of the Earth, we must begin again.”
This may seem like an anachronistic way to open Happenstance Theater’s latest collaboratively devised show. The title, Pantheon, literally translated, means “All the Gods.” The 75-minute cabaret does not quite present every god of Greek mythology, let alone every myth, but it is an intriguing anthology told through physical comedy, visual gags, and song.
The Judgement of Paris turns into a musical number featuring a trio of goddesses—Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite (Sabrina Mandell, Gwen Grastorf, and Sarah Olmsted Thomas)—singing the original song “Pick Me.” The tale of Phaethon (Alex Vernon) and his father, the sun god Helios (Thomas, dressed as an aviatrix), begins in workaday comedy and ends in a tragedy of near cosmic proportions. Thomas’ Helios moves gracefully from one sculpted, almost geometric, pose to another. All the while, the workers provide slapstick interludes, or mime precise assembly line ensemble pieces.
The most extended narrative thread is based on the myth of Orpheus (Grastorf, in a flamboyant white suit) and Eurydice (Thomas), in which the musical son of Apollo journeys into the underworld to rescue his wife and return her to the land of the living. In the descent, Orpheus encounters Charon (Mark Jaster), the boatman of the River Styx. (The understated detail in the ferryman’s work will entrance students of mime.) In another episode, Mandell and Thomas portray a ridiculous pair of sphinxes blocking entry to the underworld. Perched on ladders, they groom themselves furiously and move lifted legs as if they were tails, posing riddles to all who would pass. Another sequence that may owe more to Dante’s Inferno than the Hades of classical mythology uses Alex Vernon’s shadow puppetry to portray tortures and punishments. All the while Grastorf has the opportunity to sing original songs as well as standards from the Great American Songbook––it’s enough to charm even Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Hades.
Happenstance’s musical collaborator this time around is Craig Jaster, a composer, songwriter, and the brother of Happenstance artistic co-director Mark Jaster. From his spot downstage, he switches from piano, to drum kit, to bass, to accordion with ease. At one point, he plays right hand figures on the keys while brushing the cymbals with his left and hitting the high-hat pedal with his foot, essentially becoming a rhythm section unto himself, while his scat-singing sounds like a muted trumpet. At other times, the other performers fill out the band. The range of his compositions run from the satirical “Song of Tiresias” about the blind, gender-switching prophet, to the percussion accompaniment to the industrial ensemble pieces.
But what of the workers, the mortals who are so often subject of the Olympians’ whims and lusts? Those who labor down below as the elites of Metropolis luxuriate? And with the Three Fates (Grastorf, Mandell, and Thomas) portrayed as wise-cracking garment district seamstresses, is it unreasonable to ask if the gods of the natural world who work to keep the world turning are not laborers themselves?
Étienne Decroux, one of the master mime theorists and pedagogues with whom Mark Jaster trained, often drew inspiration from his observations of physical labor. Perhaps it is as simple as the laborers who keep the world’s “deus ex machina” in working order; the use of cranes and trapdoors in the ancient Greek theater inspired the term. Even as their fortunes rise and fall due to divine folly, the constant rearrangement of a few simple props (a couple of folding step-ladders and a plank, a sheet), transform the otherwise bare stage of Joe’s Movement Emporium into this fantastic world. Much as the world can be imagined as a collaboration between human effort and cosmic forces, Happenstance’s extraordinary spectacles are about the collaborators working upon the imaginative ideas that came before them.
To July 1 at 3309 Bunker Hill Road, Mount Rainier. $17–$23. (301) 699-1819. happenstancetheater.com.