IMAGE: Mark Jaster, Alex Vernon, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Sabrina Mandell, and Gwen Grastorf in Happenstance Theater’s current production of MOXIE: A Happenstance Vaudeville. Photo by Cheyenne Michaels.
REVIEW • BY STEVE LAROCQUE
Almost no one alive has seen an actual performance of vaudeville, the iconic American entertainment that flourished from 1890 to about 1930, when it was eclipsed by radio and the movies.
If you’re seeking a performance that actually looks and feels like the vaudeville shows of bygone days, where should you go?
Happily, these days, no farther than Bethesda, where Happenstance Theatre is offering “Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville” at the Round House Theatre through July 17.
“Moxie,” which Happenstance describes as “a theatrical collage,” is a sweet, mature homage; a succession of songs, sketches, dance numbers, and standup comedy routines that could have played in any one of hundreds of vaudeville houses in early 20th Century America; on a proscenium stage with a real curtain; with a stand where a large sign is placed to announce the next act; against painted flats representing the mountains or the ocean; and in delicious period costumes.
Gwen Grastorf, Karen Hansen, Mark Jaster, Alex Vernon, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, and Sabrina Mandell. Photo by Cheyenne Michaels.
“Moxie” is a series of “acts,” in the old sense of that word: individual performances, as diverse in content (and quality) as vaudeville was. There’s a ventriloquist with a wooden dummy named (what else?) Woody, singing sisters on swings, a tragedian declaiming Shakespeare, and a yodeling dancer.
And music, lots of it: period pieces from 1898 through 1927, played on the piano, trumpet, ukulele, drums, accordion, harmonica, and … saw.
That’s a hand saw, in case you were wondering. Let’s dwell on it for a moment.
At the top of the show, the performers arrive one by one, toting luggage (watch for the talking suitcase), getting acquainted (or not), and taking out their wares in preparation for yet another night in yet another vaudeville house.
One of the performers, Mark Jaster, sits down, after a hilarious losing battle with a folding camp stool, and picks up a violin-sized instrument case.
He produces a violin bow, then – instead of the expected instrument – a hand saw.
He positions the saw, poises the bow, plays a note. Unsatisfied with what he hears, he glances over to pianist Karen Hansen, requests a note, which she provides; he plays the saw again, this time satisfied.
Wait a minute: how can you tune a saw!?
But it’s too late: we’ve bought the bit, we believe in the musical saw, and we’re not at all astonished when Jaster performs real music on it many times in the course of the show.
Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell. Credit: Photo by Cheyenne Michaels
Getting the audience to buy into the bits, no matter how far-fetched, is a Happenstance specialty, and it makes “Moxie” a pretty irresistible show.
For the most part, it looks traditional: 1920’s swimsuits, plaid suits and skimmers, flapper dresses, enormous hats.
But there are modern effects, too, like the gigantic projection of the night sky that serves as a backdrop to Alex Vernon and Sarah Olmsted Thomas as Pierrot and Pierrette, performing a ballet on stilts to the accompaniment of the “Jupiter” suite from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” arranged by Karen Hansen for piano and – what else? – hand saw.
Don’t look for a common thread in “Moxie” – just go with the flow, as one act after another is announced, often on the fly by Hansen at the piano, taking a piece of paper from the agitated hand of the offstage Manager and reading what’s coming next, or by an ensemble member placing a huge card on the downstage stand.
Many of the acts are sure-fire standbys: a hypnotist, a ventriloquist; a standup comic playing an accordion; and two waiters in a posh restaurant, courting, and finally achieving, disaster with a white tablecloth, a tableful of china, and a tray of meatballs.
Sabrina Mandell. Photo by Cheyenne Michaels.
Some of the acts are duds – because that was vaudeville, too.
Gwen Grastorf is a hoot as a none-too-assured yodeling dancer, standing against a tacky Tyrolean village backdrop, gamely beginning her bit, faltering, then getting encircled by an enormous hook that emerges to drag her offstage.
But there’s also a deep vein of sadness and nostalgia running through “Moxie,” as we become aware that the vaudeville that we are watching is simultaneously flourishing and coming to an end.
An especially poignant character is Sabrina Mandell’s tragedian (think Sarah Bernhardt past her prime). Out of place in the low-life vaudeville bill, she declaims the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow …” speech from the Scottish Play with grand, outdated theatrical gestures. She appears twice, the first time with her powers, archaic as they are, intact; then again near the end, forgetting her lines and drifting off to reminisce about her career; but finishing gamely, taking her bow, and exiting with a walking cane.
Last scene: Mark Jaster packs up his wares, crosses stage left to Irving Berlin’s “The Song is Ended,” and exits, pausing a moment to offer an appreciative smile and a tip of the skimmer to his audience, who makes it all possible.
Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville; collaboratively devised by the ensemble; set by Alex Vernon and Mark Jaster; costumes by Sabrina Mandell and Nancy Mendez; lighting by Kris Thompson; music by Karen Hansen. At Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda MD. Through July 17. Thu-Fri: 8 p.m.; Sat: 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun: 2 p.m.. Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission).
Cast: Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, Karen Hansen, Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Alex Vernon