​Happenstance Theater’s wacky ‘Preposterous!’ pops back into DC

Free performance at Cabin John Regional Park on June 22 kicks off the company's summer tour to Brooklyn, the Berkshires, and beyond.

They’re back!

The five wacky clowns who make up the cast of Happenstance Theater—a company that takes comedy seriously and sees drama as farce—returns to the DC area on Saturday, June 22, with Preposterous!, a deliciously funny show that’s a delight for all ages.

Billed as a “theatrical clown circus,” Preposterous!, which had its debut in 2017, has all the trappings of the big tent, minus the tent.

I saw the show April 27 at Glen Echo Park, where the quintet of clowns—armed with some of the silliest props ever seen on stage—performed in honor of the reopening of the century-old carousel.

The theater—nearly as old as the carousel—was packed, and the show itself was laugh-out-loud funny for everyone in the audience.

Toddlers sitting on the floor laughed as gleefully as their parents, sitting beside them, while the old folks, like this reporter, perched on the edge of their seats and guffawed.

Happenstance Theater ensemble in ‘Preposterous!’ at Glen Echo Park April 27, 2024. Photo by Nancy Rodrigues.

Some of the funniest skits featured Sabrina Mandell and Mark Jaster, the founders of the company, performing comic duets. One involved a violin bow and a saw, while another, equally hilarious, had the two reflecting each other in a magic mirror.

The couple, who met and married in 2005, have made a career of comedy, merging their artistic styles and picking up Helen Hayes Awards and critical raves for their work.

She’s a professional clown, as well as a painter and poet, while he’s a master of mime. (He studied under both the legendary Marcel Marceau and his mentor, Etienne Décroux, and credits Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx for inspiration.)

Company members for Preposterous! are Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Alex Vernon, and Gwen Grastorf, each with his or her particular, or preposterous, style of goofiness.

Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Sabrina Mandell, Mark Jaster, and Alex Vernon appearing in ‘Preposterous!’ Photo courtesy of Happenstance Theater.

Thomas, for example, evoked shouts of awe and high-pitched giggles in a skit where she pulled a black tutu over her harlequin tights and then walked—bravely, teetering and tottering with each step—across an invisible tightrope.

Vernon was the musical maestro, playing the xylophone, horns, cymbal, and drums. And Grastorf was ferociously funny as an animal trainer, coaxing Jaster—in the guise of a somewhat petulant lion—who wore a tutu instead of a mane.

A human calliope, powered and performed by the entire ensemble, was a sight joke so funny that words were unneeded.

The costumes, designed by Mandell—who has won two Helen Hayes Awards for the work—were blissfully absurd, ranging from the ringmaster’s jacket (which resembles the one often associated with Napoleon) to classic Harlequin attire.

Mandell also designed the set, which was built by Jaster and Vernon. It’s ingeniously simple, consisting mainly of two folding screens, painted to look like Greek columns, and just large enough for the characters to duck inside and change their costumes.

Other highlights of the show include acrobatics, reminiscent of Commedia dell’arte, synchronicity so perfect it could easily have won the performers a role with the Radio City Rockettes, and facial expressions so droll that even a simple grimace drew loud bursts of laughter.

It’s summer fun, based on the classics—some going back to the 16th century—but performed by a team of first-rate actors and dancers, many well-known on the Washington stage.

Running Time: 50 minutes, with no intermission.

Preposterous! A Theatrical Clown Circus plays Saturday, June 22, 2024, at 10 am, presented by Happenstance Theater performing at Cabin John Regional Park, 7400 Tuckerman Lane in Bethesda. Admission is free. Click here for full summer tour schedule.

SEE ALSO:
How Sabrina Mandell met Mark Jaster and Happenstance Theater began
(feature by Lisa Traiger in DCTA’s The Companies We Keep series, May 22, 2023)

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