Have yourself a haunty little evening at Theatre Project in Baltimore, where Happenstance Theater presents its much-lauded Cabaret Macabre.
Some folk will maintain that there’s nothing funny about death. Those folk would NOT be the members of Happenstance Theater, who have been honing Cabaret Macabre in various iterations for more than a decade. Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Gwen Grastorf, Alex Vernon, and new guest musician Stephanie Baird combine to create a musical buffet of vignettes that feature gleefully morbid characters, Vaudeville technique, live music, comedy brilliance, precise timing, false mustaches, and enough spooky content to satisfy your hankering for autumn hallows.
Pre-show snacks and beverages (adult and family-oriented) are available at the Box Office check-in. Cabaret Macabre has no intermission, so enjoy those now, if you’re inclined. Comfortable cushioned seats inside the theater are raked at a steep angle: if you fear vertigo, arrive early enough to secure the floor row of the General Admission seating.
The theater is abustle with people prepared to enjoy creepiness played for comedy, or absurdity played absolutely deadpan. Happenstance Theater provokes titters, giggles, guffaws, chortles, snorts, and communal outbursts of from-the-belly laughter from an audience composed of longtime fans and brand-new admirers.
Described by the presenters as a theatrical collage, the show has been created by the ensemble and includes musical compositions specially composed for Cabaret Macabre by now-retired longtime collaborator Karen Hansen, so even in her absence, she is present. Though the entire cast is handy with instruments, a designated accompanist seems advisable for the momentum of this fast-paced assemblage of Gorey-inspired morsels. Stephanie Baird’s fresh-faced delight and bewilderment offer the audience an onstage representation of their potential reactions.
With titles such as “The Erstwhile Siblings,” “The Late Patron,” or “Mannequins,” one rarely can predict the throughline of the sketches, but Happenstance delivers an appropriately gruesome or hilarious conclusion every time. The story arc of “The Spilsby Suitor” plays out over the course of Cabaret Macabre in several vignettes, including the Shadow Waltz, which is eerily beautiful and a triumph of low-tech engineering.
The multi-skilled performers of Happenstance Theater bring a variety of assets into play in this quirky, beautiful show. Gwen Garstorf, a savant in the arena of synchronous motion, reins in her naturally expressive face to portray a grim domestic who has Opinions…. which you’ll never hear, but probably can guess. Her almost-smile is exquisite, and her ability to execute a one-legged skip is impressive. Sabrina Mandell, whose artistic eye and acquisitive acumen are responsible for the fabulous Victorian-aesthetic costuming, indulges in the most superlative of all emotions presented onstage. Her angst is the angstiest, her sharpness the sharpest, her devilishness the devilishest, her cackle the cackliest. Whether she’s an ancient doyenne or a fiendish four-year-old, she’s captivating.
Mark Jaster — master of movement, micro-expressions, meaningful silences, and also music — collaborates impeccably with the ensemble. His dignified, aloof persona in some scenes contrasts with his high-society silliness in others, and he’s equally fascinating whichever facet he presents. Many of the musical selections are his choice, arrangement, or translation.
It’s astonishing how fluidly elegant Sarah Olmsted Thomas moves from silence to song, from sophistication to slapstick, glibly inserting comedy into non-comic setups. Her sultry execution of “Little Drop of Poison” is a perfect take on a song that sounds more Victorian than it is. Alex Vernon moves smoothly as a swish of chiffon. He displays a wide spectrum of skills and moods. His sassy posthumous performance is as funny as his otherworldly waltz is tender and moving.
Former Music Director and composer Karen Hansen has retired, but left behind the beauty of her arrangements and influence, which include rich harmonies that swell to the metaphoric rafters of the theater, particularly in “Who Killed Cock Robin.” New guest musician Stephanie Baird assumes a role of naivete, meshes nicely with the ensemble, and is frequently the de facto narrator. Baird has a number of her own that displays her musical skill as well as her ability to convey emotion exclusively with her tuxedo-clad back.
Most of the sound effects we hear during the show are performed live. I believe there might be special recorded sound cues, but I’m not certain, because they are so precisely timed. The lighting, designed by Kris Thompson, changes rapidly from moment to moment, behaving almost as an additional cast member. The minutely detailed costuming is satisfying in every aspect, and I sigh over the perfection of a pair of shoes. Balancing rich music and elaborate costuming, set pieces are minimal. Often, a completely bare stage is transformed by the actors’ appropriation of our imaginations.
The final sequence, titled Danse Macabre, moves the performers in patterns that are significant, or symbolic… or something. It’s mesmerizing and lovely and so successfully hypnotic that when it has concluded, the audience collectively hesitates to break the delicate silence with something so crass as applause — then the lights come up and the appreciative cacophony is impressive.
If you’ve never seen Cabaret Macabre, you’re in for a treat. If you’ve enjoyed Cabaret Macabre before, see it again. Happenstance Theater has so many impressive works that it may be a while before it cycles back. I reviewed it in 2014 for BroadwayWorld, and everything I said about it then is still true. Cabaret Macabre is a masterful demonstration of ensemble collaboration and a gilded salute to the gleefully bloodthirsty toddler in each of us.
Running Time: About 80 minutes with no intermission. The program for Cabaret Macabre is online here. Ticket prices (unchanged since 2016) are between $15 and $25.
See Happenstance Theater’s Cabaret Macabre at Theatre Project, 45 West Preston Street in Baltimore through November 12, 2023 (Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 PM; Saturdays and Sundays at 3 PM), For tickets, buy them online, phone the box office at 410-752-8558 or visit theatreproject.org/.
According to Theatre Project’s website, tickets may be purchased and reservations claimed at the Box Office starting one hour before showtime. The box office is located in Theatre Project’s lobby at 45 West Preston Street, up two flights of stairs from street level. If you’ll need to access the lifts to enter the building, I advise phoning ahead for a smoother arrival.
One block from Theatre Project, on the same side of Preston Street, stands Soup’s On, one of my favorite restaurants. There are, however, other local spots that may appeal to you if you’re not a soup person.
Be aware that the parking situation has changed — the garage on the opposite side of Preston Street seems to be permanently closed, and the open-air lot on Maryland Avenue has such confusing signage that I daren’t park there, at risk of being towed. Street parking can be found round and about, though the signage regarding when paid parking is in effect is also murky, but often, by showtime, it’s free.
Final Factoid: If a trip to New York City is part of your winter holiday tradition, you might include a visit to 59 East 59th Street, where 59E59 Theatres hosts Happenstance Theater’s production of Adrift from November 29 through December 24, 2023. Happenstance will return to Baltimore’s Theatre Project with Adrift in late February.