A slapstick look at the spoiled rich in Happenstance Theater’s ‘Barococo’

The talented visual movement artists spoof the decadence and indifference of the French aristocracy, and it's a truly fascinating watch.

It’s one thing to be cooped up and have an excuse for it; COVID has us all hunkering down, and we all teeter on the brink between tedium and madness—with good reason.

It’s another thing entirely to coop yourself up simply because it’s the done thing; because to endure contact with the real world and “mingle with the maggotry” is so base, so déclassé, that one wouldn’t dream of doing so. That refusal to deal with actual human beings is, to my mind at least, the very definition of madness, and not in a good way.

Operetta scene from ‘Barococo.’ Photo by Klintz.

And yet that was seen as the very height of fashion in the world of absolute monarchy, a world whose tedium was matched only by its seeming indifference to everyone else. With little to do but practice one’s mincing, court-required steps and bows, curtsies, and dances, even the games one plays to pass the time can only get you so far through the day.

Happenstance Theatre’s Barococo is a study in the decadence and ennui of the French jet-set, circa 1780. Decked gorgeously in Sabrina Selma Mandell’s period costumes, the ensemble gives us a portrait of a salon in which the spoiled rich kill time in various ways, just before the end of their world. Each has their turn evoking the clueless, jocular world of the elite; and as the vignettes build one upon the other, it’s tempting to see them as nicely dressed frogs in the proverbial slow-boiling pot. With period music on harpsichord and cello provided by Caleb Jaster, it’s a truly fascinating watch. 

Filmed before a live audience, with spare dialogue (some of it quite funny), the visual elements predominate here, and their flair for slapstick humor is as always spot-on. The games played do have their element of foreshadowing; a pass at riddles or charades can be punctuated by rather poor guesses, also by guesses that hint at what’s to come. But the chaos that erupts at dinner, in super-slow-mo, is utterly delightful, with dignity as the first casualty and (imaginary) food flying every which way.

Scene from ‘Barococo.’ Photo by Klintz.

Sarah Olmsted Thomas presides over the evening, as by far the tallest in the group (is it the shoes? Or the highly coiffed wig?) and the most Antoinette-like of present company. She makes quick work of the men, playing “Apollo and Diana” one minute (turn into a “tree” before the boy catches you!), and taking a cello lesson chock full of double-entendres (the cello, of course, being related to the viol de gamba, as in “Nice gambas, miss!”). Mark Jaster is at the top of his game, and his impromptu small-sword duel with Mandell is as finely pointed as one could wish (stage combat, like mime, has its own intricate choreography; hats off to Brad Waller for his advice on this sequence!). Gwen Grastorf, meanwhile, is on key as the more awkward of the circle, with solid comic timing to match.

For some time now, those of us cooped up with COVID have been taking solace from the Happenstance Theater home page; they’ve used the time to experiment and share some of their latest visual ideas—their “Dance Macabre” for Halloween was nicely done, indeed. But Barococo gives you a vision of one of the region’s most talented visual movement artists, an open invitation—once our days of confinement are over—to reunite with them in the theater.

Running Time: 59 minutes.

Barococo is available online; Vimeo access is $15 and can be obtained by visiting vimeo.com/ondemand/barococo. For more fun, have a look at Happenstance Theatre’s library of experimental work at happenstancetheater.com

Trailer for Barococo from Happenstance Theater.

SEE ALSO: 2018 Capital Fringe Review: ‘Barococo’


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