City Paper is not for tourists
The days spanning late October to mid-November, when the sky darkens far too soon and a jacket becomes not merely tolerable but necessary, are the perfect time for the impeccably stylish mopes of Happenstance Theater to celebrate Victorian morbidity with their annual series of comical, Edward Gorey-inspired musical vignettes. Now in its third iteration, Cabaret Macabre gleams with the precision that has become Happenstance’s hallmark, even if isn’t quite the “all-new” offering promised by the program, or doesn’t feel like it at any rate. It’s simply another diverting, crisply executed series of sketches from some gaslight-era version of Saturday Night Live, featuring circus-y musical accompaniment from Karen Hansen on accordion, trumpet, and a trunkload of other instruments.
Last year’s best bit, “Mannequins,” wherein mime nonpareil Mark Jaster engages in a wordless grudge match with Gwen Grastorf as the uniformed maid charged with introducing each of his increasingly elaborate poses, is revived. (The actual poses he strikes this time—“Mannequin in a Venetian gondola,” for example—are new.) My other favorite returning sketch is another Jaster/Grastorf one, with the latter playing a (different?) maid who pushes a feeble, wheelchair-bound Jaster out to his garden, then back inside when it’s time for tea. Jaster’s semiverbal vocal ejections in response to gruesome headlines in the newspaper he’s reading, and the faint smile Grastorf allows to pierce her otherwise impassive visage at key moments, are the kind of jokes that won’t survive a textual description. As with the exquisitely choreographed four-way croquet-mallet fight scene, performed in slow motion while Jaster reads the game’s rules aloud (another gag I remember from last year’s show, but good enough to warrant the repetition), you kind of had to be there.
Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon share a segment about a love affair gone violently wrong called “The Broken Locket” that doesn’t quite pay off. But the bereavement songs woven throughout the show are all beautifully sung: Grastorf delivers a great “Gloomy Sunday” while Jaster—rigged, with the help of a black hood and a second actor, to look like he’s three feet tall—looks on. When Sabrina Mandell, who co-founded the company with Jaster, takes a salted-pork chomp out of Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot!” speech for a tittering crowd of party guests, you’ll appreciate how difficult it is for a good, subtle actor to play a ham-fisted bad one. Cabaret Macabre deserves to become a locally sourced Halloween tradition.