‘Cabaret Macabre’ at Happenstance Theater by Amanda Gunther

‘Tis the time of year when leaves wither from the trees and waft upon the autumn breeze to the cold and rigid ground below. When spirits wake and rise up to take a stroll through the shrouds of mist at midnight; ghoulish delights and fiendish darkness settles into the atmosphere with hints of the macabre trickling in to tickle your morbid senses. Surely it must be time for Happenstance Theater’s 4th Annual Cabaret Macabre, a scintillating devised ensemble work in its fourth year running with all of the gory and deliciously dark morsels one with a shaded sense of humor could hope for. Inspired by Edward Gorey, Victorian Nightmares, dangerous croquet, and Gothic romance, this aesthetically stunning piece of performance theatre is a tantalizing treat for those that enjoy the darker side of death.

'The Late Patron: (l to r) Alex Vernon, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Mark Jaster, and Sabrina Mandell. Photo by Mukul Ranjan.
‘The Late Patron: (l to r) Alex Vernon, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Mark Jaster, and Sabrina Mandell. Photo by Mukul Ranjan.

As a theatrical collage devised by the performers, this work of art has continued to evolve from its inception, incorporating classic themes with new ideas and fashions of executions that keep the audience rocking at the edge of their seats. The most stunning thing about the work is not the incredibly funny scenes or the brilliant mourning-inspired costumes, but the way this six person ensemble relates to one another and trusts one another so fully throughout the production. The chemistry that these performers have honed for this performance is palpable; an honest working relationship that allows them to move fluidly from one movement to the next throughout the piece, delving more deeply into the themes of the work while continuing to captivate the audience’s attention every step of the way.

This year Cabaret Macabre features a myriad of dark snippets, several of which reunite with one another throughout the performance; a unifying thread wending itself in and out of the sketches and linking them together in a clever, albeit subtle, fashion. The imagery created by several of these scenes is tragically beautiful in a poetic sense; disturbing but lovely to look upon as they unfold.

Three of the signature moments that anchor this macabre evening return with vivid flare and modifications that will delight newcomers and long-time supporters of the company’s work, particularly the segment entitled “Mannequin” featuring master of the mime Mark Jaster. The epic Croquet Match has been developed into a full-fledged speaking scene with dramatic pauses and varying tempos from slow-motion to real-time speed, adding to the layered hilarity of the startlingly violent slapstick humor found in that moment. And as always the show is completed with the stirring and harrowing rendition of “Danse Macabre” – an original piece composed by company musician Karen Hansen – that features the performers in a ritualistic but enchanting dance of the dead.

Gwen Grastorf and Sarah Olmsted Thomas take on the role of sisters in several sketches throughout the production. Grastorf and Thomas share kindred spirits and even when one of their sororal relationships goes awry they unearth the intricate nuances of this bond through their facial expressions and covert gestures. Thomas gets to showcase her singing talents several times over the course of the evening but particularly with her featured solo “Little Drop of Poison,” a sultry and devilish number that slinks its way to the audience’s ear on her graceful yet serpentine voice. Grastorf, reprising her role as the surly and often silent maid, is featured several times throughout the production in this unsettling skin, doing a marvelous job of maintaining the stoic presence that such a character requires to be truly effective.

Karen Hansen, upholding nearly all of the show’s instrumentations (save for Mark Jaster playing the sawblade from time to time) is an impressive musician with a wide variety of talent. A new sketch for Hansen this year includes the delivery of morbid telegrams; a recurring bit that is most amusing. Hansen also has a rather authentic sounding Italian accent for the opera sketch entitled “The Late Patron.”

Featured in the aforementioned segment is Alex Vernon, showing the audience his mastery of physical comedy in a fashion that almost pays homage to a Mr. Bean type of character. The scene is played out with silent brilliance, depending solely on his body language to draw forth the laughs. Vernon has a hauntingly beautiful voice, particularly when gritting his way into the early butcher’s poem. Watch for the breathtaking shadow dance he performs with the ghost of his lost love; a truly mesmerizing moment.

Artistic Directors Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell are once again stunning in this production. With Mandell’s character work and Jaster’s mime work the pair are unstoppable in creating vivid moments that ring true to the company’s values and this work in particular’s existence. The duo have sombre yet serene voices, especially when singing together in “Twa Sisters” number. Mandell brings a youthful exuberance to the performance, particularly when embodying the deranged jump-roping child, and her moments on stage oscillate from playful to mournful in the blink of an eye. Jaster uses his animated facial expressions and keen mastery of his body to create a plethora of characters that are just sensational to watch.

'Dancing the Devil Away': (l to r) Gwen Grastorf, Alex Vernon, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Mark Jaster, and Sabrina Mandell. Photo by Mukul Ranjan.
‘Dancing the Devil Away’: (l to r) Gwen Grastorf, Alex Vernon, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Mark Jaster, and Sabrina Mandell. Photo by Mukul Ranjan.

The company works like a well-oiled machine – dancing and singing these dreary and yet uplifting tunes that stir fond memories of decay and morbid moments of melancholic marvel to mind. A perfect fit to the rise of autumn and a wonderful way to spend an evening experiencing live, theatre with true passion behind it.

Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes, with no intermission.


Happenstance Theatre’s 4th Annual Cabaret Macabre plays through November 10, 2013 at Happenstance Theater at The Round House Theatre Silver Spring—8641 Colesville Road in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.


  1. We’ve had the the great pleasure to see this production each year, including the performance we attended last evening. I can’t adequately express how fantastically entertained we are each and every time. Last night in particular, my family and i were literally gasping for breath from laughing so hard. The cast is simply outstanding and well worth the nearly 2 hour drive we make each year. Cabaret Macabre is a must-see. You will be amazed!


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