Theater review: ‘Vanitas’


Sabrina Mandell and Mark Jaster in the production “Vanitas” at Happenstance Theater. (MARK SILVA/MARK SILVA)
April 3, 2013

The metronome is getting its moment in the spotlight, and that’s not such a good thing for Happenstance Theater, the company that put it there.

In “Vanitas,” the latest original work from this usually ingenious troupe, vaguely poetic tableaux and sketches muse on the themes of impermanence and mortality.

Given the subject matter, it’s hardly surprising that the properties design should include timepieces, and the high-
profile appearance of an hourglass, in one scene, is graceful enough. But a metronome (a tempo-marking aid for musicians) emits audible clicking sounds. And when one such device starts methodically ticking in “Vanitas,” it draws unfortunate attention to the show’s languid pace and brooding ponderousness.

Admittedly, you have to admire the high-concept vision behind “Vanitas,” which has been staged at Round House Theatre Silver Spring. The 75-minute piece takes its name from a type of still-life painting favored by artists in the Netherlands in the 17th century: Vanitas paintings depict gorgeous natural and
human-made objects lying near a signifier of human mortality, often a skull. Other symbols of impermanence (hourglasses, candles, abandoned musical instruments and so on) tended to turn up on these canvases, too, urging the viewer not to put too much stock in temporal pleasures.

Happenstance’s “Vanitas” riffs on the iconography and philosophical overtones of this artistic tradition, with frequent reference to the genre’s literary equivalents. A pensive Queen (Sabrina Mandell, in a pink-and-green Renaissance gown) interacts with a Fool (Mark Jaster), whose name seems to be Yorick, like the jester discussed in the gravedigger scene in “Hamlet.” A musician (Karen Hansen) plays a pump organ and other instruments in a compartmented space that recalls a Vermeer interior. Three Fates (Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon), wearing stylized black doublets, mime the creation of a piece of pottery on a spinning wheel: When the clay form doesn’t turn out right, they scrap it, an action that speaks to the precariousness of all life.


Gwen Grastorf (seated), Karen Hansen with horn, Sabrina Mandell (seated), Alex Vernon (standing) Mark Jaster (seated), Sarah Olmsted Thomas in the production “Vanitas” at Happenstance Theater. (MARK SILVA/MARK SILVA)

Such mildly poetic images drift in and out of “Vanitas,” which the company has dubbed “a theatrical Cabinet of Curiosities.” Many of the sequences are wordless: In a brief comic salvo, for instance, the Fool sinks to the ground, balancing a flower vase on his forehead. In a darker scene, a cut-out fox, with moving limbs, flees a pack of hunters.

At other times, the characters toss off literary quotations, allowing audience members who are former English majors to play a game of spot-the-excerpt. (That’s a line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”! That’s a snippet from “The Lady of Shalott” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson! The program also cites Saint Augustine, Groucho Marx, Blaise Pascal and Laotzu as literary sources or inspirations.)

The scattered highbrow allusions add to an aura of meandering solemnity that quickly becomes tedious. To be sure, the exuberant, irreverent quirkiness that has distinguished past Happenstance works (“Cabaret Macabre,” “Manifesto!”) might be inappropriate here, given this show’s preoccupation with transience, futility and death, some of the scariest phenomena known to humans.

Another mode might be in order: To make “Vanitas” more than a highfalutin gloss on art history, the company members might, like those perfectionistic potters, need to do some radical reshaping.

Vanitas

devised and performed by Happenstance Theater. Music composed by Karen Hansen; lighting, Kris Thompson; costumes, Rachel Schuldenfrei, Sabrina Mandell and April Blum. About 75 minutes. Through April 14 at Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.happenstancetheater.com

Celia Wren is a freelance writer.

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