Arts Desk

Happenstance Theater’s Cabaret Macabre, Briefly Dissected

These days of dropping temperatures and lengthening shadows are the perfect time of year for Happenstance Theatre to reanimate Cabaret Macabre, the company's ghoulishly gratifying showcase of Edward Gorey-inspired grim reapings. Like all of the five-year-old company’s shows, it’s a wonderfully imagined, expertly choreographed meditation on a theme, in this case mortality, and the spectacular variety of ways in which it can be accelerated: doubles croquet, for example, when one finds oneself in the regrettable company of “the coarse player.”

This isn’t a Molotov show, so there’s no need for rain slickers or eye protection. Murderous innuendo is the show’s preferred mode. The morbid gags are good but the morbid songs are better: sister duo The Pierces’ “Secret,” performed by Gwen Grastorf and Esther Williamson, Matthew Pauli’s chilling take on Tom Lehrer’s “I Hold Your Hand in Mine,” and clown extraordinaire Mark Jaster’s version of Tom Waits’ all-occasions lullaby, “Innocent When You Dream,” are all marvelous, as is the live accompaniment. Karen Hansen handled the arrangements, wrote an original waltz to accompany Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Like a Look of Agony,” and performs on a variety of instruments. Sabrina Mandell co-founded the company with Jaster and appears in a number of roles—none more memorable than Headmistress Forthright of the Academy of Precocious Twins.

My favorite recurring gag involves a segment called “Mannequins” and Jaster’s wordless interaction with Grastorf, charged with introducing the bit. The paradox of this company is how the severity of their physical technique (Jaster studied under Marcel Marceau) opens up boundless opportunities for humor.

It’s one thing to dream up a show like this, but the execution is all.

Cabaret Macabre is at the Round House Theatre Silver Spring for three more performances, tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10-$15.

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