Magic and mystery in Happenstance Theater’s ‘ADRIFT: A Medieval Wayward Folly’ at NYC’s 59E59

“What do we do now?” ponder five bewildered characters from the Dark Ages floating on a crowded ship of fools. As part of its Co-Op Residency at NYC’s 59E59 Theaters, DC-based performance group Happenstance Theater contemplates that age-old question in its latest collaborative ensemble-devised piece ADRIFT: A Medieval Wayward Folly, playing a limited engagement this month at the Off-Broadway venue. In keeping with the company’s inventive signature style, the transcendent and provocative work combines music, movement, metaphor, puppetry, sleight-of-hand, and minimal dialogue with the inspiration of iconic art and archetypes, history and religion, tarot and alchemy, to interpret the inexplicable mysteries, magic, and absurdities of life and death.

The cast. Photo by Leah Huete.

Through a sequence of well-researched, skillfully crafted, and masterfully presented scenes, the collective’s multi-talented ensemble of five (Gwen Grastorf, Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, and Alex Vernon), under the mesmerizing direction of co-artistic directors Jaster and Mandell, takes us on a thoughtful and funny post-apocalyptic journey of challenges and rebuilding, deceptions and discovery, arcane elements and unsolved enigmas, to the inevitability of mortality, while bringing to life the imaginative themes, intriguing imagery, foolish behavior, and common beliefs of the time as captured by the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) in The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Conjurer, The Cure of Folly, The Ship of Fools, and more, along with details from the art of Pieter Brueghel the Elder and figures from the Major Arcana cards of the tarot deck.

The cast. Photo by Leah Huete.

Embodying the characters of peasants, sowers and reapers, acolytes, a jester, magician, nun, crone, quack doctor and patient, demon and angel, and diviners that jointly answer questions submitted pre-show by members of the audience (alternating from word to word with their prophetic responses), the performers convey their hopes, fears, trickery, troubles, and delights with expressive gasps of wonderment and disappointment, movement, and physical comedy, feats of magic and juggling, live music and otherworldly songs, in the original languages (English, Latin, French), from the 12th-17th centuries (“Spiritus Sanctus Vivificans” by Hildegard von Bingen, “Douce Dame Jolie” by Guillaume de Machaut, and other traditional pieces) that conjure the period and stylings of the Middle Ages and employ instruments of the era (including a recorder, chimes, tabor stick, drum, cymbals, harp, and bladder pipe), with expert music direction by Grastorf and Jaster.

Alex Vernon and Mark Jaster. Photo by Leah Huete.

The exceptional company also works the array of puppets they designed and constructed (painted cut-outs by Mandell, shadow puppets by Thomas, and creature puppet by Vernon), which recreate the motifs of their artistic sources (e.g., an oversized strawberry and egg, a nude from the waist down excreting a flag, a fish, an owl, the mouth of hell), as do Mandell’s authentic hand-made costumes, and the mostly bare-stage set with telling props by Mandell, Jaster, Vernon, and Nancy Rodrigues, all effectively transporting us into the visionary mind and world of Bosch and his contemporaries, enhanced by the evocative lighting of Tori Muñoz and Daniel Weissglass and sound effects (and the voice of God) generated by the ingenious cast.

Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Mark Jaster. Photo by Leah Huete.

In ADRIFT, Happenstance provides immeasurable entertainment with its comedy, music, and artistry, while enrapturing us with the eternal questions of human existence that obsessed Bosch then and remain unanswered now, in a characteristically compelling, intelligent, and thought-provoking hour of unique, outstanding, must-see theater. So heed the message that tempus fugit, carpe diem, and go while you can!

Running Time: Approximately 65 minutes, without intermission.

ADRIFT: A Medieval Wayward Folly plays through Sunday, December 24, 2023, at Happenstance Theater, performing at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $44, including fees), go online.

For a preview of the show, watch the trailer below:


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