I don’t know if I ever told you this: my goal every season is to see a show at a theater I’ve never been too. I do this in my normal theater patron life and being a B.I.T.R Sister supplements my habit. I think it’s important to experience something new and spread the love to different types of theater companies. The Baltimore area theater scene is too diverse not to explore it. This past weekend I decided to try Happenstance Theater for the first time. Happenstance Theater is a theater ensemble committed to devising, producing and touring original, performer-created works. Barococo was a participant and Best Comedy winner in the Capital Fringe Festival 2018 so I felt like I picked a good show to introduce myself to the troupe. From the program I learned that the show title Barococo is a portmanteau of “Baroque” and the more extravagant and ornate European period that followed it known as “Rococo”. I will give them props for using the word “portmanteau” in the program. I will try to use it in a sentence this week.
Barococo follows the inner workings of a late 17th century, early 18th century European parlor and its inhabitants. The audience is the recently arrived company to a gathering of social aristocrats to include the head of house Dauphine Marionette (Sarah Olmsted Thomas), absent-minded beauty Baroness Constance Blandford Plainview (Gwen Grastrof), musician Luccio Patatino Von Dusselkopf (Caleb Jaster), actor Astorio Cavalieri (Mark Jaster), mature seductress Countess Olympia Stroganovskaya (Sabrina Mandell) and suave Duc Leslie Pamplemousse de Citron-Presse (Alex Vernon). Yes those are some long-ass names. They were doing what spoiled aristocrats do best: lounge around and do boring, rich people shit. The audience are quickly welcomed into their world of dueling, harpsichord interludes, dropped handkerchiefs, and overt politeness.
This work was devised and written entirely by the ensemble. Devising is hard ya’ll and the ensemble did a bang-up job of creating a unique and specific world. There was drama, intrigue and comedy in the dialogue. The piece felt complete but also made you want more. A tricky, yet effective juxtaposition. The staging was simple: a bare stage, minimal lighting, a small desk with paper and quills and a harpsichord, cello and assorted musical instruments. The show started off with silly games that I presume were played during this era. I watched fully bodiced and wigged actors bounce around the stage playing hide-n-go-seek and the flattery game. What the heck is going on? Speaking of costumes, the period costumes and wigs were glorious thanks to Nancy Mendez and Happenstance co-artistic director/actor Sabrina Mandell respectively. The dresses and waistcoats were in lovely pastel shades, the handkerchiefs long and flowy, and the wigs were picture perfect. The music in the production completed the transformation of the Theatre Project stage to the elegant Barococo world. The music supported and drove the action beautifully thanks to composition and arrangement by Karen Hansen. Actor Caleb Jaster, in his first Happenstance production nonetheless, played a mean harpsichord! I especially enjoyed the sound effects and the physicality of the actors during an unexpected slow motion bit. #slowmoBarococo. Speaking of the physicality, the movement work in the production was well devised and purposeful. It was so put upon and presentational. Nothing was wasted and everything had a purpose.
The acting was over the top with just the right amount of nuance. Baroness Constance (Gwen Grastorf) was dumb in a sweet kind of way. She obviously was young and did not quite understand the societal rules. Gwen Grastorf played her with heart, innocence and a kind of etherealness. Dauphine (Sara Olmsted Thomas) was the leader of the group and she wore excess on her sleeve. She was so full of herself and overly presentational. I enjoyed Sara Olmsted Thomas’ facial expressions and emotional shifts. She moved effortless between emotions, never dwelling on any one for long. She was riveting to watch. The physical comedy of Alex Vernon, as the reluctant swordsman Duc Leslie, was spot on and well performed. I believed that he was a duke not used to getting his hands dirty. Innuendo was also the undercurrent through everything. The veiled insults thrown between Duc Leslie (Alex Vernon) and Countess Olympia (Sabrina Mandell) were like a Baroque-style verbal smackdown. Oh no he didn’t! My money was on the mature Countess Olympia. Sabrina Mandell knew how to handle a sword and she expertly displayed a devilish nature behind her politeness.
There were portions of Barococo that made me smile and nod at the absurdity. You have to go to hear the sexual double entendres during the music lesson scene. Dauphine (Sarah Olmsted Thomas) takes cello music lessons by young musician Luccio (Caleb Jaster). Phrases “put the instrument between my legs” and “trying to find the G-string” were uttered in the most proper of tones. They were sophomoric jokes and I laughed. Don’t judge me! But I didn’t find all of the elements of Barococo laugh out loud funny and that’s okay. The show was mostly funny ho-ho in my opinion. A smart funny with a nod to the farcical. But some people in the audience were laughing like it was funny ha-ha. Like they were at a comedy show. I was dumbfounded. But you do you boo-boo. What I found the most striking in this production was the idea of being entrapped in a world beyond your control. Was the audience invited company to this band of misfits or were we voyeurs into their world? It made me think of the episode of the “Twilight Zone” when the young couple fell asleep in their car after a late night party and ended up as playthings of a alien little girl in her doll house world. The aristocrats tried to leave the room at several points in the play, but they stopped themselves. Why couldn’t they leave? Are they our permanent entertainment in an ornate, imprisoned box? Are they afraid of the outside world? Are we in this world stuck in a cycle, starved by our own restrictions? Barococo is a smart, witty, excessive, and cheeky production. There is room in Baltimore for all types of theater so grab your powdered wig, corset and stockings and take a walk on the Barococo side.
Should I Stay or Should I Go? Go see this show if you like witty banter and are a fan of the 17th and 18th century over-the-top-ness. Devised theater enthusiasts will enjoy the process to create the show as well as the layered performance. Others may not completely understand the production, but that’s okay, come anyway. Barococo had me asking more questions than I got answers to. That is the mark of good theater. A show that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Thanks Happenstance for creating an interesting, visual and fun devised world. (Z)
Showing at Baltimore Theatre Project now through Nov 11th. Running time: 50 mins with no intermission.