What’s an 18th-century aristocrat to do, when trapped inside a luxurious salon while the French revolution rages right outside the door? The DC area’s Happenstance Theater shows us, in the ingenious ensemble-devised physical comedy of manners Barococo, now playing a limited NYC engagement at 59E59. C’est merveilleux!
Directed with panache by the company’s co-Artistic Directors Mark Jaster and Sabrina Selma Mandell, the impeccably researched and performed pièce de resistance captures the late Baroque era of the Rococo, known for its hedonistic extravagance, indulgent frivolity, and decadent superficiality of the nobility, largely paid for by the taxation of the peasants – until it wasn’t. All of the light-hearted excess, and underlying apprehension of what’s to come, are displayed by the outstanding ensemble of six, with authentic demeanors and activities, precise movements, and artistic stylings that provide a perfect parody of the period and look like the pleasure-loving paintings of Watteau, Fragonard, Boucher, Vigée-Le Brun, and their contemporaries come to life – until their patrons were either guillotined or exiled.
The work opens with the party of characters of the Ancien Régime caught in a cycle of repetitive leisure activities that define them, their privileged class, and their elite lifestyle – until they notice the audience, with the words, “We have company!” They continue the entertainment with a series of clever and amusing parlour games, from Apollo and Daphne and the flattery game, to riddles, hide-and-seek, and charades that become increasingly competitive, funny, and revealing, with witty wordplays and double-entendres, and uneasy references to the burgeoning danger of the revolution.
And so goes their day, as they alleviate the ennui of being trapped inside with music, songs, and dance of the time, playful flirtations, sword fights, and letter writing that hints at their imminent demise, giving an occasional furtive glance at the door, expressing the desire to go out for a walk, but deciding against it. And then it’s “Time to eat.” An absolutely hilarious segment of mime follows, with flawless silent portrayals of serving, eating, chewing, and drinking, culminating in a spot-on and portentous slow-motion food fight that highlights the expressive technical skills of physical comedy and clowning by the extraordinary cast.
Created and performed by the terrific Sarah Olmsted Thomas as the laughing and insouciant Dauphine Marionette, Gwen Grastorf as the somewhat awkward and unsure Baroness Constance Blandford Plainview, Sabrina Selma Mandell as the dour and aging Countess Olympia Stroganovskya, Mark Jaster as the narcissistic actor Astorio Cavaliere, and Alex Vernon as the imperious roué Duc Leslie Pamplemousse de Citron-Pressé, accompanied by Brooklyn-based Caleb Jaster as their musician Luccio on harpsichord, every character is represented as a distinctive type within the embracing class structure and etiquette of the age, with its stylized curtsies, bows, toe points, and fanning, and the ideal of joie de vivre that is curtailed by the encroaching coup d’état.
Though the performance takes place on a mostly bare stage – with just a large central table, well-chosen props that suit the characters, and an array of musical instruments of the Rococo period (in addition to the harpsichord, a cello, hurdy-gurdy, Baroquelele, and castanets) – a stellar design team transports us to the time, with lavish costumes, wigs, and make-up à la mode (costume design and wig construction by Sabrina Selma Mandell; costume construction by Nancy Mendez); lighting by Daniel Weissglass; fight choreography by Brad Waller; music for the original production chosen, composed, and arranged by Karen Hansen; and Caroline Copeland serving as the Period Movement Consultant.
Barococo was a special delight for me (with a PhD in Art History and a specialization in Northern European Art of the 17th-18th centuries), but I can’t imagine that anyone who appreciates excellence in theater would not find this piece, theme, ensemble, and design highly entertaining, intelligent, masterful, and evocative. I can only hope that Happenstance will bring more of its impressive work to the NYC stage. Oh, and that change can be accomplished peacefully, without violent revolution and beheadings (I should add here that the brutal French revolutionaries ultimately turned on each other, and the monarchy was restored after the fall of Napoleon in 1815). As Happenstance reminds us, “Voting is a democratic alternative to the guillotine.”
Running Time: Approximately 60 minutes, without intermission.
Barococo plays through Sunday, March 6, 2022, at Happenstance Theater, performing at 59E59, 59 East 59th Street, Theater B, NYC. For tickets (priced at $40; $30 for members), go online. Everyone must be fully vaccinated and have proof of a booster dose, along with a photo ID, to attend performances at 59E59 Theaters. All patrons are also required to wear a KN95 or N95 mask, which will be provided free-of-charge to those without one.