BY ALEX HOLT
A bloody game of Victorian croquet. Mannequins in outrageous situations. A series of increasingly over-the-top deaths.
These are all hallmarks of Cabaret Macabre, the Happenstance Theater’s Edward Gorey-inspired “theatrical collage” playing at the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring this Halloween season for the fourth straight year.
The actual lineup of the songs and skits in the revue changes from year to year and show to show. But what always remains the same is the group’s darkly comic look at death and all things dark.
It’s no coincidence that Cabaret Macabre always plays near Halloween. The show began in 2009 when Happenstance’s directors, husband-and-wife duo Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell received a slot to do a show at the Round House right around Halloween time.
“Mark and I are both big Edward Gorey fans so we thought ‘oh, why don’t we make an Edward Gorey-inspired piece, it would be perfect for Halloween,” Mandell said. “And we love these Victorian settings so it kind of spiraled from there.”
Jaster and Mandell call their work “theatrical collage” because it’s usually less linear and plot-based than it is a series of songs and sketches with a great deal of visual content.
“It’s more of a collection of pieces that when you step back from them all make a whole,” Jaster said.
Slow-mo death by mallet
Audiences have come to embrace some of those pieces as particular favorites, especially the slow-motion croquet sketch.
“Every year, we have a different narrative and a different launch but we have these very civil Victorians who are playing this very civil game of croquet,” Jaster said.
But by the end of the sketch, the characters bludgeon each other to death in slow motion until almost no one is left alive.
“As soon as they announce croquet you can hear this sort of chuckle rumble from the audience,” Jaster said.
The writing process for the show tends towards collaboration and improvisation. Ideas come not just from the drawings and writings of Gorey but also audience suggestions, old English folk songs and even German classical songs like Franz Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.”
Each member of the company contributes a different aspect to the show. Jaster and Mandell create the basic outline and costumes for the show. Alex Vernon builds most of the show’s machinery. Gwen Grastorf handles the choreography while Karen Hansen composes the music. And Sarah Olmsted Thomas has what Jaster calls “a surreal, original imagination.”
“She comes up sometimes with things none of us could expect,” Jaster said.
Laugh while you may
If there’s any reason Jaster and Mandell credit for the success of Cabaret Macabre” besides just having a good time, it’s the show’s healthy outlook on death.
“The territory of Victorian nostalgia and also of mortality is more something that people are kind of hungry for,” Mandell said. “We hope that everybody acknowledges their mortality and I think that allows people to have a sense of humor about it.”