Happenstance Theater’s ‘Pocket Moxie’ is a fantastic throwback

Five talented performers give vintage vaudeville routines — from a ventriloquist's dummy to lighthearted songs — new life.

Happenstance Theater’s Pocket Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville is an homage to the spirit of vaudeville. This fantastic, kid-friendly production includes slapstick humor, squeaky-clean harmonies, and comical charades.

From the 1880s to the 1920s (when movies became predominant), vaudeville was the most widely watched form of entertainment in America. Some of the most well-known vaudevillians included comedians, singers, dancers, plate-spinners, ventriloquists, musicians, animal trainers, and acrobats. James Cagney, legend of stage and screen, reportedly said: “Everything I know I learned in vaudeville.”

The English music hall and antebellum American minstrel shows were just two examples of the centuries-old cultural traditions that were combined in vaudeville. Though vaudeville occasionally featured deeply disturbing cultural stereotypes, particularly when both white and Black performers wore blackface, it served as a representation of the varied cultures in early 20th-century America. It served as many people’s first introduction to the cultures of those who lived nearby.

The cast of ‘Pocket Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville’: Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Alex Vernon, Sabrina Mandell, Mark Jaster, and Gwen Grastorf. Photo courtesy of Happenstance Theater.

Pocket Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville is a show of motifs. The show treats audiences to sketches, songs, sight gags, and mime. There are recurring commercials for Zodenta tooth-brushing powder. The cast interchangeably playstwo hapless hotel guests, Mr. Wizenheimer and Mr. Short, who complain about how bad their respective accommodations were. The jokes are somewhat corny by today’s standards (“My hotel room was so damp I found a goldfish in a mousetrap”), but they work well when combined with the physicality of the performers — giving the show a live-cartoon feel.

Co-director Mark Jaster, who has studied mime with French masters Etienne Decroux and Marcel Marceau and won a Helen Hayes/Robert Prosky Award (Happenstance Theater has won five Helen Hayes Awards), amused me as an Irish performer who played a wood saw like a violin. In that skit, he added in a clumsy bit with a top hat, cane, and chair.

Co-Director Sabrina Mandell was fun to watch in a skit in which her head was magically turned 360 degrees and in another in which she wordlessly played a bossy restaurant chef. Mandell is the founder and “Visionary Tornado” of Happenstance Theater, was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Actress in 2017, and snagged two Helen Hayes Awards for Costume Design.

Sarah Olmsted Thomas, a fifth-generation performing artist and half of the Jim Henson Foundation–awarded puppet theater company Alex and Olmstead, showed mesmerizing dance moves as Rosalita de la Flor. She was good also in the musical number “The Pussy Cat Rag” (1913) by Joseph M. Daly & Thos. S. Allen. Thomas got in such zingers as what cats like to eat in the summer: “mice cream.”

Left: Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Gwen Grastorf; right: Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell in ‘Pocket Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville.’ Photos by Ross Corsair.

Gwen Grastorf, a Happenstance member since 2012, had a recurring bit as a yodeling German, who repeatedly and literally got the hook off stage. She and Thomas also played, with the help of puppetry, the kid sisters in “Baby Sister Blues” (1922) by Henry I. Marshall & Marion Sunshine.

Actor and puppeteer Alex Vernon, half of Alex and Olmsted, with which he creates original puppet works, did impressive ventriloquist work as part of his Walt and Woody act. I found it amusing that Woody the puppet was told by his boss at the pencil factory that he had “raw potential.”

The cast did a magnificent job with “Shine On Harvest Moon” (1915) by Nora Bayes-Norworth & Jack Norworth. That number included sweet harmonies and a charming puppet clown.

Alex Vernon, Mark Jaster, Gwen Grastorf, Sabrina Mandell, and Sarah Olmsted Thomas in ‘Pocket Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville.’ Photo by Blonnie Brooks.

Jaster and Mandell’s set, in Baltimore Theater Project’s welcoming black box, consisted of house-left musical instruments and a hat rack, and center stage dressing partitions, which served as the performers’ backstage and a cache for many props. Mandell’s costume design evoked the early 20th century quite well, with suits and top hats for the men, and frilly dresses for the women.

This is an ideal show for families. You’ll be taken back in time by Pocket Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville to an era of slapstick, dance, puppets, and corniness.

Running Time: About 70 minutes, with no intermission.

Pocket Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville plays through November 13, 2022, presented by Happenstance Theater performing at Baltimore Theater Project, 45 West Preston Street, Baltimore, MD. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 pm, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 pm. For tickets (general admission $25    seniors/artists/military $20, students $15) call the box office at 410-752-8558 or purchase online.

The program for Pocket Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville is online here.

COVID Safety: For the safety of our artists, crew, staff, and patrons, you must wear a mask while inside Theatre Project except while actively eating or drinking. If you have any COVID-associated symptoms the day of the show, please do not attend. See Baltimore Theater Project’s COVID Safety Plan here.

Pocket Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville
Ensemble/Performers: Gwen Grastorf, Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, and Alex Vernon.
Set Design/Construction/Painting: Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell
Costume Design: Sabrina Mandell
Costume Construction: Nancy Mendez, Lois Dunlop, and Sabrina Mandell
Humanette Dolls: Nancy Mendez
Woody Dummy/Head Crank/Pierrot Puppet: Alex Vernon


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