‘Vanitas’ at Happenstance Theater by Amanda Gunther

What is time? We all have a sense of it, and in fact know what time is but when asked to explain it, we somehow lose sight of what time is. The exploration of time as it relates to our own macabre mortality is the vein of exploration for the latest cabinet of curiosities to arrive on the stage as Happenstance Theater presents Vanitas. Devised by the ensemble, this work springs forth from many inspirations, playing at the intersection of visual art and performance theatre with a heavy focus on imagery, music, and physicality; an interpretive piece that gives a moment of breath in the otherwise racing world of today, transporting the audience into a moment of stillness and acceptance long gone.

The cast of 'Vanitas.' Photo by Leslie McConnaughey.
The cast of ‘Vanitas.’ Photo by Leslie McConnaughey.

The movements and choreographies of this piece are the key components to captivating the attention of the audience in this non-linear story. Mime extraordinaire Mark Jaster’s work can be evidenced throughout the production, particularly in his own performance as The Fool. The simplicity of his character combined with his keen sense of comic timing makes his character’s existence entertaining as he attempts to give the queen the giggles. With the ability to incorporate his body fully into all of his movements, aligning over-exaggerated facial expressions to match his performance, Jaster motivates the pace of the performance allowing it to glide naturally without a sense of being rushed or too slow.

Working as a collective this performance incorporates the individual as well as the group moving as a whole. This is evidenced most clearly every time the three ‘fates’ (Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, and Alex Vernon) slide in and out of the scenes. The trio moves in a dance-like fashion from time to time, uniting as one in a brief sequence at the beginning, creating a palpable energy that flows through them. When they tend to the queen it becomes a most amusing sort of game, measuring her in what would seem a nonsensical fashion. Their slightly ominous qualities take a silly moment and make it more dark and foreboding, as if they were fitting her for a coffin rather than a new dress.

One of the main components to this performance is the Queen (played by co-Artistic Director Sabrina Mandell) and her struggle to identify her own mortality. Mandell approaches the character with a tempered balance between grounded and aloof; one moment completely present in her own reality while still floating above the nature of reality itself. This makes for a vastly intriguing performance as the whole thing could be interpreted as a madness that is really all just wound up inside of her head, and perhaps she is dead after all. Mandell’s voice shifts subtly from when she’s addressing the audience with ponderous questions and deep thought-provoking statements to when she’s speaking with The Fool (Jaster). The delicate differences between the two offer two opposing characters in this light and further invites the audience into the world of mortal discovery.

Rounding out the refined imagery of this production is the almost ethereal sounds created by Musician Karen Hansen. A multi-talented instrumentalist – Hansen plays nearly a dozen different instruments including several different medieval string pieces and a pedal organ. Hansen’s ability to move from one instrument to the next while staying engaged in the present moment of the performance enhances both the reality and the surreal sensations of all that is unfolding in this journey.

This cabinet of curiosities that circles around life, death, and moments of pausing beauty in-between is an enchanting way to spend the evening. Discoveries abound in this production, so take from it what you will, even if the Queen is dead.

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.


Vanitas plays through April 14, 2013 at Roundhouse Theatre Silver Spring— 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online. 

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Amanda Gunther
Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.


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