‘Impossible! A Happenstance Circus’ at Happenstance Theater by Amanda Gunther

Ladies and gentlemen! Step right up! A circus the likes of which you’ve never seen has come to Round House Theatre in Silver Spring compliments of the extremely engaging and enticing Happenstance Theater You’ll marvel at the illusion, you’ll gasp at the spectacle, you’ll feast your eyes upon sights unseen at Impossible! A Happenstance Circus. A delectable aesthetic treat, this fun-filled evening brings a brand new theme of fluid movement to the theatre with all of the signature hallmarks of a Happenstance Theater production while inventing new characters, storylines, and moments of comic genius captured in the flawlessly woven physicality of it all. A stunning new work that incorporates physical movement with one of America’s favorite pastimes— the traveling and fascinating novelty of a circus.

 (l to r) Performers Karen Hansen, Sabrina Mandell, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Mark Jaster, and Gwen Grastorf. Photo by Mark Silva (www.MarkSilvaPhoto.com).
(l to r) Performers Karen Hansen, Sabrina Mandell, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Mark Jaster, and Gwen Grastorf. Photo by Mark Silva (www.MarkSilvaPhoto.com).

Designed as a cumulative effort amongst performers Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, and Alex Vernon, the set draws the eye’s attention to a time gone past. A good old-fashioned circus front with flashy light bulbs and fancy colored curtains hiding away the mysterious spectacle that is about to unfold. Jaster, Mandell, and Vernon use this simple but wondrous element to give the show a framework despite most of the ‘acts’ being played out in the large open space of the stage. Their use of this iconic setup develops a vigorous excitement in the atmosphere; gearing the mindset of the audience to what they are about to witness.

Lighting Designer Kris Thompson is an essential component to several of sketches included in this performance. Thompson’s work helps to create effortless illusion, particularly for Cassiopeia: Queen of the Air, and ultimately crafts moments of suspense, excitement, humor, and titillating thrills into scenes all throughout the production.

Capturing the essence of a traveling band of curious performers is the costume menagerie designed by Sabrina Mandell. There are performance outfits and ‘backstage’ outfits, as the characters crafted before the audience’s eyes wend in and out of the ‘day in the life of a circus performer.’ Gypsy-esque robes and brightly patterned fabrics comprise a large deal of what the characters wear in their ‘behind the scenes’ moments. Mandell’s ability to infuse vibrant colors and glamorous hints of sparkle and shine into the ‘performance’ costumes really sharpen the focus of the whole circus theme, exactly as you would expect to see, right down to the ringmaster’s shiny red coat.

What circus would be complete without musical orchestrations? And no Happenstance Theatre production would be complete without the original compositions and arrangements provided by company musician and performer Karen Hansen. With her push cart of plenty, instruments galore, Hansen underscores nearly all of the performances with some fantastical sound or another. Be it intense violin moments to draw out suspense for a high-wire act, or a song strummed on ukulele that fuses the company into a group-ukulele song and strum number, Hansen is a sensational talent that ultimately acts as the show’s aesthetic glue.

Truly an ensemble piece, the myriad of characters and personalities created in this performance are too numerous to describe, but they are astonishing. The fluid incorporation of physicality, the basis of the company’s existence, and overall movement and mime work into each of these characters is art at its finest and is truly a delight for audience members of all ages. There is honest humor pulsing through the physical work of the piece, and moments of touching emotion as well. Depending heavily on movement as a unifying thread for many of the concept sketches in this production, the ensemble does an exceptional job of crafting captivating moments that stimulate the audience while simultaneously wowing them. Never once are you left wanting or searching for an illusion, in fact the illusions portrayed are often more entertaining that the possibility of reality that could have been in these performances.  Of course you won’t want all the amazing feats that await you to be spoiled, so you’ll simply have to come attend the circus yourself to know about a good deal of the ‘group performance’ segments.

Alex Vernon, mustache extraordinaire, provides one of the show’s most impressive mime scenes, done in near complete silence. “Professor Freeman: Master Escapologist” (with his lovely assistant portrayed by Sarah Olmsted Thomas). Vernon’s vastly expressive body language takes the audience on a journey through a series of escape trick that relies solely on his gestures and facial expressions, and he does so with smashing success. Watch in awe as he escapes rope, handcuffs, and even a straight jacket. Vernon also brings one of the most tender and honest moments to the production with his ‘tall man’ routine; between that and his ‘conjoined twin’ comedy bit, you find yourself awash in empathy for him.

Gwen Grastorf dazzles the audience with her sassy portrayal as “The Human Phoenix.” Singing and dancing with incendiary spirit, Grastorf makes the most out of this number, one of the most entertaining and amusing segments in the show. But it’s her sketch as “Lily Fields” with her “Magnificent Menagerie (featuring Mark Jaster) that really impresses the audience. The segment, done again almost in complete silence (with a brilliant underscore featuring Karen Hansen) captures the audience’s attention as Grastorf presents three incredible animals and the tricks she can do with them. The relationship built between Grastorf and Jaster in this sketch is incredible; each animal (portrayed in a series of three by Jaster) has a unique personality and intense physical portrayal that is very realistic, matched by a well-paired personality and physicality radiating from Grastorf. Surely my words cannot do this particular sketch justice, but it is easily one of the most sensational in the show.

Jaster, as the master of the mime, gives a spirited performance throughout the production, crafting invigorating moment after moment. His dynamic portrayals span the universe and seem to know no bounds as he shifts from the confident booming ringmaster with a hint of a southern accent, to the smarmy and slightly seedy barker presenting “Arnie’s Astonishing Sideshow.” It’s Jaster’s striking facial expressions that do a good deal of the story telling throughout the performance; a phenomenal well-rounded experience for every moment that he graces the stage.

Co-Artistic Director Mark Jaster. Photo by Mark Silva (www.MarkSilvaPhoto.com).
Mark Jaster. Photo by Mark Silva (www.MarkSilvaPhoto.com).

Bringing home the wagon is Sabrina Mandell, crafting character after character with exceptionally dynamic differences among them. Whether she’s playing ‘Ruby Gallagher: Everyone’s Favorite Flying Sweetheart’ with her adorable Betty-Boop-esque voice, or the staunchly stoic and slightly sensual Volga from the duo of ‘Knife Throwers from the Old Country,’ Mandell catches everyone’s eye. It’s often her characters’ silly nature that makes her so very loveable, and her fierce dedication to the craft that makes her inspiring to watch.

Remember, impossible is only in the mind, and this circus— like all circuses— is only in town for a brief period of time. So be sure to get your tickets to Impossible! A Happenstance Circus before the pageantry, pomp, and circumstance vanish into a puff of the imagination.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, with no intermission.

Impossible! A Happenstance Circus plays through February 9, 2014 at Happenstance Theater at 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.

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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.


  1. Much has been made in recent years of “movement based” theater in the DC metro area, but Happenstance are the real deal. Originality, integrity, and creativity flow from this small group like much needed fresh water. THIS is what movement based theater can be.


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