REVIEW: Impossible: A Happenstance Circus

REVIEW • BY STEVE LAROCQUE

If you have ever been to the circus – even if you can’t remember when – you should go to see “Impossible: A Happenstance Circus.”

If you have never been, you should go, too. Initiated and newbies will experience this show in different ways, but there is some kind of fun for everyone – also some pathos, a little philosophy, and lots of great music.

And there’s actually a plot, albeit a pretty simple one: in Depression-era America, in a nameless town that could be anywhere, a young man (Alex Vernon), down on his luck but with talent to burn, joins up with a small circus troupe, headed by ringmaster Mark Jaster. The newcomer starts in performing with the group, and he fits like a glove. The band of players performs their amazing circus acts while sharing the small joys, disappointments, and hardships of everyday life; then the show closes, they pack up and move on.

That’s about it. You can think of the plot as scaffolding for the circus acts, or vice versa; it doesn’t really matter. I chose to follow the plot, which does meander a bit but gets to its goal eventually, and I just let the circus acts wash over me.

Now, this isn’t an actual circus: there are no lions or high wires or trapezes. But there is an animal act, with Mark Jaster doing a dead-on impersonation of a chimpanzee and several other circus animals, and statuesque Gwen Grastorf as his trainer. And Sarah Olmsted Thomas does a high-wire turn as Cassiopeia, Queen of the Air, balancing, not on a real high wire, but on a line drawn on the floor of the black box stage; but all of the moves are real, including an amazing burst of balletic enthusiasm when she hears the overture to “Swan Lake.” And Sabrina Mandell climbs up a real ladder to an imaginary trapeze, where she risks life and limb ‘way up there, out of sight, as the earthbound handlers of her safety net prove not quite up to the task of following her every move.

You’ll find yourself getting drawn into one of the timeless rituals of the circus: at the culmination of every act, when the assistant (usually one of the attractive young ladies) raises her arms to signal the audience for applause, we applaud, because that’s what you do in the circus. (In fact, I probably applauded more at this show than I have at any other performance in any theater, ever.)

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I realized that we had been hooked on this game when, at one crucial point in Alex Vernon’s act as Professor Freeman, Master Escapologist, it had become apparent to everyone that the Professor’s hoped-for escape was not going well at all – indeed, that he was in mortal danger. When his Lovely Assistant (Sarah Olmsted Thomas), in barely concealed panic, raised her arms for applause … no one applauded, because we were just not buying it. I realized that we had just become participants – a Greek chorus of the circus, if you will. But, of course, everything ended well: the Professor escaped; the Assistant raised her hands again; and we finally applauded, because – hey, it’s the circus. Enduring all the twists and turns of each act (including the danger) is a lot of the fun, because we know that it will turn out all right in the end.

If you have never been to the circus before (as some children in attendance hadn’t), there is plenty for the imagination, and some delightful visual curiosities, like Arnie’s Astonishing Sideshow, with Mark Jaster as a talking midget impresario, Sarah Olmsted Thomas’s Human Pretzel, and Alex Vernon’s incredibly stretchy man. And the mirror image sketch involving the entire company is a pure visual hoot.

And let’s not forget Karen Hansen, the one-woman orchestra, who handled half a dozen instruments (maybe more) – sometimes two of them simultaneously. Watching her trade off one for the other was an entertainment in itself. More than once, I found myself turning from the main event, once I had figured out which classic circus act it was and how it was going, to focus on the musician as she segued from calliope, to xylophone, to trumpet, and so on. And the rest of the cast displayed its musical chops, too, including an ensemble ukulele number with all the classic crooner moves and a solo turn by Mark Jaster on an instrument that you won’t find in any music store.

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Quibbles? Just a few: the Professor Freeman escape sketch was a little on the abstract side; I had to dig deep to remember how some of those Houdini-like routines were supposed to go, and some youngsters probably won’t get it. And the knife-throwing sketch, with Mark Jaster as the amusingly disoriented knife-thrower and Sabrina Mandell as the human dart board, also demands some imagination. Some may not feel the danger – but, then again, maybe they will. I realized, somewhat to my surprise, that I recognized just about every one of the classic acts, although I probably haven’t seen an actual circus in many, many years.

The show lasts eighty minutes, without an intermission. The individual acts move in quick progression, but they don’t feel hurried. The costumes evoke the time effectively – not only the classic circus costumes, but also the frumpy street clothes of the Depression. The simple set evokes the temporary glories of the circus and the down-at-the-heels drudgery of life offstage, and the word “IMPOSSIBLE” spelled out in light bulbs almost becomes a character.

Veteran circus attendees will harken back to the big-top shows of their youth (some may even remember brave little itinerant troupes like this one). Kids will wonder how the lady twisted herself into a pretzel and why the man in the mirror did something different the second time; and everyone, in one way or another, is just about certain to have a good time.

“Impossible: A Happenstance Circus” plays through July 12 at Round House Bethesda, located at 4545 East-West Highway, just east of the intersection between Wisconsin Avenue (MD 355) and East-West Highway. www.happenstancetheater.com

Remaining performance dates/times are:

July 8: 7:30 pm
July 9: 8 pm
July 10: 8 pm
July 11: 3 pm & 8 pm
July 12: 3 pm

Tickets: Adults $20, Students $10

Getting there

The show is at Round House Bethesda, located at 4545 East-West Highway, just east of the intersection between Wisconsin Avenue (MD 355) and East-West Highway. If you’re driving, there’s a public parking garage half a block away, and an underground garage beneath the theater.

On public transit (my preferred mode for getting to the theater), the theater is three minutes’ walk from the Bethesda Metro Station; in fact, you’ll probably spend more time getting from your train to the street than you will walking from the station to the theater.

The Round House Theatre Website has some helpful advice for getting across Wisconsin Avenue:

Metro riders should disembark at the Bethesda station and take the pedestrian tunnel under Wisconsin Ave. This pedestrian tunnel ends in the lobby of the Bethesda Crescent Building. After exiting the tunnel, take the escalator up to street level. Exit the building onto East-West Highway, look to your right and you will see Round House Bethesda across the street at the corner of East-West Hwy and Waverly St. The pedestrian tunnel is closed 10pm – 5am. During those times the Metro is accessible through the entrance on Wisconsin Ave. in the plaza next to the Hyatt

If you’re going by bus, there are about a dozen buses (Metrobus, RideOn, and the Bethesda Circulator) that drop you off at or near the Bethesda Metro. If you’re using Metrobus, J2 is your best bet.


Author Steve LaRocque has been an actor, director, playwright and technician in Maryland community and professional theaters since 1994.   A retired Navy veteran, he recently completed a two-and-half year run with his one-man show, Byline: Ernie Pyle, playing the famous World War II correspondent.