Happenstance Theater’s Cabaret Macabre, showing through Sunday, November 24 at the Marigny Opera House, gives new meaning to the term “skeleton crew”. Six versatile performers take on various roles in this dark, twisted collection of original vignettes inspired by the works of Edward Gorey.
Gorey, an American writer and illustrator, became famous in the 1970s and ‘80s for his intricate, disturbing Victorian and Edwardian scenes. Often, Gorey characters end up maimed or dead due to freak accidents.
The majestic, decaying Opera House is a flawless setting for the Cabaret’s morbid humor. As composer and performer Karen Hansen sits at the piano to play the audience into the show, her top-hatted figure throws an ominous shadow across the curving church ceiling. She’s joined by Happenstance co-artistic director Mark Jaster for a duet — on a Sears Craftsman saw.
In a series of brief sketches and melodic interludes, the Cabaret cast perfectly pins down Gorey’s spartan aesthetic and gruesome wit. Performers create their own special effects, including the masterful illusion of gusting clifftop winds; the company’s other artistic co-director, Sabrina Mandell, completely captures Gorey’s somber silhouettes in her costume direction.
Sketches are sometimes as short as six seconds, and often include little dialogue. Each is presented with magical precision: take, for example, “The Spilsby Suitor,” a grim visual narrative of two sisters who want the same pale, silent man. Played by Alex Vernon, an actor and puppeteer who demonstrates his versatility in several memorable characters throughout the Cabaret, the morose Spilsby Suitor is simply doomed to unhappiness from the start.
Though each sketch could easily stand on its own, certain characters return throughout, like the surly maid (played by Gwen Grastorf) who prefers not to speak and harbors a simmering hatred for her employer (played by Mark Jaster).
At times, Hansen assumes a postmaster’s attire and reads unsettling telegrams to the crowd. The comically expressive Sarah Olmstead Thomas also shines in many different scenes, including a croquet game-turned-bloodbath performed in slow motion.
More serious moments, like Vernon’s ghostly dance with an empty dress, create an enchanting visual poetry that balances the show’s hilarity. Dramatic lighting in crimson and sea green further infuses scenes with a sense of the fantastic, adding to the Cabaret’s success as a show simultaneously unhinged and restrained, exaggerated yet understated.
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