Impossible! A Happenstance Circus – Mmmmm…Potato Salad


Impossible! A Happenstance Circus, Photo Credit: Leslie McConnaughey


You never know what you’re going to get at Baltimore Theatre Project. That’s kinda cool in its own charming little way. Sometimes the show leaves you wanting, sometimes the show soars into the skies. That’s the great thing about that BTP; they shamelessly present theatre: nuff-said.

Chris Pfingsten, producing director of BTP, announced in his (overly long and annoyingly repetitive) curtain speech that he stumbled across Happenstance Theatre in Washington DC a “while” back. Happenstance Theatre, based out of Rockville Maryland (and DC) has a myriad of performance works they have collectively devised from their core group of eight company members. The works are predominantly constructed using movement theatre and clowning expression. Under their belt they have created 20+ physical theatre works and toured up and down the east coast with their diversely themed repoitorie.

Chris’s “discovery” of Happenstance’s show “IMPOSSIBLE!! A Happenstance Circus” brings a glorious style of theatre, presented with exceptional craftsmanship, to Baltimore’s audiences. (May 23rd – June 1st)

Baltimore needs this stuff: SRSLY. (and the performers need your butts in the seats too!)

From the moment I walked into the theatre and was greeted with well curated music from the depression era, I knew this experience was going to be unlike anything I had seen in a while. The set (by Alex Vernon, Sabrina Mandell & Mark Jaster) was a simple backdrop painted with swaths of colored light and rudimentary lighting projections used to imply time-of-day. A rinky-dink vintage styled proscenium arch (a theatre within the theatre sorta-thing) frames the right-hand portion of the stage. A large array of musical equipment of sorts is arranged on the left creating a makeshift onstage pit orchestra for one. The stage composition is balanced and perfectly executed in these bold Rude-Mechanical, touring circus, styled elements. A bare-bulb marquee illuminates the show’s title: “IMPOSSIBLE!” across the top of the arch and the entire stage-picture is perfectly complete.

When the show starts, we see a series of simple silent events transpose as a team of performers prepare to present their circus spectacle to an implied off-stage audience. The musician joins her pit-orchestra of one and begins to play an eclectic assemblage of instrumentation. The show has begun. I am transfixed.

Happenstance uses physical theatre, movement, ensemble dance, gesture, live music, exceptional acting with precise dialog, singing, and mime to tell the stories (often without speaking) of several circus performers’ day-to-day lives on and off-stage. There is no overarching plot, just a series of magically and acutely performed scenes aligned together to create the evening’s entertainment. This storyless story slowly takes shape over the duration of the evening, and the audience begins to feel as one with this silly amalgamation of circus personalities. Sometimes we, the audience, are addressed as behind the scenes of the circus; getting a sneak-peak. At other times we get to see the full acts of their IMPOSSIBLE! circus fully play out. We see a tightrope walker, a knife thrower, an illusionist, and an assortment of other clearly and cleverly executed characters played by this small ensemble of exceptional performers. (their historically stereotypical sideshow stint even features a little person, and a bearded lady!) One of the things I found most amazing about this production was that I had a difficult time figuring out how many actual people were playing these roles. Happenstance’s troupe moves in and out of costume, character, makeup, movement style, and mentality flawlessly so many times that it’s IMPOSSIBLE! to believe they only had six actors on stage. The exquisite costumes (by Sabrina Mandell, Artistic Co-Director) beautifully supported the show’s depression era style. From satin ballgowns for the belles of the ring, to the silk top hat of the swarthy ringmaster, to the denim coveralls of the stall sweepers, this production is a costume visual feast.

Sabrina Mandell and Mark Jaster (performers and Artistic Co-Directors) list a smart array of inspirations, texts, and songs that were used both in the live production, and in the generation of the work’s texts, music, and scenes. I particularly enjoyed their adaptations and renditions of Potatoes, Potatoes [salad!] (“Bulbes” Yiddish song), Fire and Ice (Robert Frost) and Oh Dear! What Can The Matter Be? (18th century English & Irish). The show is dense but accessible, face paced but not exhausting, ridiculous but not unintelligent. Above all: it’s perfectly magical. Perhaps one of the most touching and tender moments I’ve seen on stage this year involved IMPOSSIBLE!’s stilt-walker Alex Vernon. —swoon—.

Karen Hansen’s original music, accompaniment, and underscoring is a feat not-to-be-missed. This lady doesn’t stop playing… and I loved every moment of it. Not only did Karen perform live onstage music for the circus, but also executed perfectly timed and comically charged folly effects on point. There’s nothing like hearing the swoop and a whoosh of a swinging trapeze artist generated onstage by a musician at a snare drum. You get to watch two things at once!

This team of artists has got it down. They know their shit people. SRSLY. The dialog, timing, comedy, stunts, shadow-play, object manipulation… yaddaa yadaa yadda yadaaa… It’s all there, and it’s all seamlessly (and shamelessly) presented.

THE BOTTOM LINE:  Happenstance took me from laughing at dis-conjoined twins (at embarrassingly loud decibels), to sharing a tear inducing and beautiful moment on stilts. The costumes are rich and the props are simple and well used. The dialog is just enough to keep the action flowing without making the show overly-wordy. The movement in this movement theatre piece is of the highest calibre. The company’s website bills the show with this subtitle: ”Startling Leaps of Imagination! Daring Feats of Hope! Ferocious Acts of Wonder!” and they nailed it.

Running at Baltimore Theatre Project until June 1st.

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