Credit: Photos by Kintz

Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

It may be a little early in the Fringe season to start handing out superlatives, but what the hell: Happenstance Theater’s Barococo features the best powdered wigs in the festival!

Also, the best fencing duel, the best-danced minuets, and the best harpsichord sonatas.

This is one high-quality costume drama, and if that genre seems off-brand for Fringe, well, it’s not. Happenstance Theater made its debut in 2006 at the very first Capital Fringe Festival, and has since become one of the area’s top non-Equity theaters. You can’t miss them at the Helen Hayes Awards, because Sabrina Mandell, Mark Jaster, and their colleagues come dressed to the nines. And because they often win. Happenstance returned to Fringe for three more years after that 2006 debut, but retreated once their productions became too big to pack up in 15 minutes. 

They got bookings at larger, stable venues like Round House Theatre and Theatre Project, and staged hits like Cabaret Macabre, BrouHaHa and Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville. But with the addition of a curated series at this year’s festival, Happenstance has been lured back. Fringe is producing Barococo and mounting it at Arena Stage, which means the company didn’t have to pony-up admission fees and wait to see whether they’d win a venue that could accommodate a harpsichord in the Fringe lottery. They wisely invested extra money into their costumes, and the results are absolutely fabulous.

Barococo looks like a Merchant Ivory Production, if Merchant Ivory were a physical comedy troupe. Mandell, Jaster, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, and Alex Vernon all have extensive training in traditional clowning. (That means mime and commedia dell’arte, not red noses and over-crowded cars.) Most of their shows are set in a bygone era, with a distinct aesthetic and an original devised script.

No European history degree is necessary to guess that the six characters in Barococo date to the life and times of Marie Antoinette; the voluminous gowns and flower-adorned billowing pile of hair atop Thomas’ head clearly indicate the setting. When the lights come up, she is holding court in some sort of 18th century drawing room, where guests are amusing themselves with rapiers, decks of cards, and blindfolds. 

There’s a more pointed premise for this variety show than just six rich French people playing parlor games, but you’ll have to piece that together as the hour-long comedy progresses. For the first 40 minutes or so, witty innuendo carries the day. Thomas spreads her legs and sits for a cello lesson with an onstage musician named Doppio (Karen Hansen). Thomas needs help with, among other things, finding the G-String and playing a “hard F.” 

A bit later in the show, tensions rise and a discussion about animal husbandry (raising cocks, etc.) dissolves into allegations of bestiality.

It turns out there’s a reason these fancy folks are a little stressed out, and the tonal switch from merriment to unease would benefit from a smoother segue. But this is still a captivating comedy. The final moments of the show perfectly marry both physical comedy and political tragedy in a way only an established Washington-based company can. 

To July 22 at 1101 6th St. SW. $17. (866) 811-4111. capitalfringe.org.