Vanitas

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Editorial Review

It’s art, yes, but is it a play?
By Celia Wren
Thursday, April 4, 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.

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.

’Til death becomes art
By Maura Judkis
Friday, March 29, 2013

Still-life is not still. Especially not in Happenstance Theater’s “Vanitas,” a play inspired by the work of 17th-century Dutch still-life painters. But also not in reality: Petals fall from those perfectly arranged flowers, fruit shrivels, light shifts and even the canvas itself changes.

“There’s this ideal -- the ideal of beauty -- and then there’s the reality of the thing, which degrades and dies, and then there’s the painting of the thing, which lasts a little bit longer but still disappears,” says Sabrina Mandell, Happenstance’s co-artistic director. “And theater is ephemeral, but we’re trying to create something lasting in its message.”

As the Latin saying goes: “Ars longa, vita brevis,” or “Art endures, but life is short.” Mandell would know. She’s the child of two artists, one of whom paints in the style of vanitas, 17th-century Dutch still-lifes. In this type of painting, a bowl of fruit or an hourglass means more than meets the eye. Each of the carefully arranged items is a coded reference to death, some obvious (skulls, rotten fruit, dead fish) and some obscure (musical instruments and bubbles, which represent fleeting beauty).

Mandell, who recalls going to the market to choose fruit for her father’s paintings, was raised with a constant, shrouded reminder of death.

“Artists are always contemplating death. I mean, we contemplate everything,” she says. “I think it is just something very human to contemplate our mortality and finding meaning [in it]. It leads us to wonder about what the meaning of our lives is, if we know that death is coming.”

As Mandell grew up and became an actor and visual artist, the symbolism of vanitas paintings stayed with her. Two years ago, she began to devise “Vanitas” with her fellow artistic director, Mark Jaster, and Karen Hansen, who composed the play’s original music.

Featuring the Queen, the Fool, the Musician and three Fates, Happenstance’s commentary on the frailty of life references the work of mathematician Johannes Kepler, philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, the Tennyson poem “The Lady of Shalott” and, most of all, famous works of art. The hand-painted set pieces are inspired by 17th-century Dutch landscapes. The costumes, designed by Rachel Schuldenfrei, are based on outfits worn in portraits of the era and are hand-painted to match the texture of the set.

“Anybody who has studied art history will recognize these things,” Mandell says. “We play a lot with time in the piece, where we’ll stop in a position, and because of the stillness, it becomes a still-life in its own way.”

Symbols of vanitas still exist in contemporary pop culture. Mandell points to the show “Six Feet Under,” “Death Cafes” where people get together to talk about mortality over coffee, and the skull-print fashion trend at stores like H&M and Forever 21. Just like those bowls of rotting fruit, they remind us we can’t live forever.

“If we become more attuned to and accepting of our deaths,” Mandell says, “we won’t squander our lives.”