You might not call it a kiss-me-deadly moment, but Happenstance Theater is giving a big smooch to a classic crime-flick tradition. Admittedly, the tongue-in-cheek “Cabaret Noir: A Film Noir Inspired Theatrical Montage” skips the bloodletting typically featured in movies such as “The Big Sleep” and “Gilda.” Instead, this droll and easygoing production dwells archly on the genre’s trappings and atmospherics — melodramatic shadows, femmes fatales, slangy period discourse, swirling intimations of menace and enough fedoras and trench coats to clothe all the strangers on a train.
Created and performed by the ensemble members of the distinctive Happenstance — Gwen Grastorf, Karen Hansen, Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon — “Cabaret Noir” cobbles together noir-esque vignettes, jokes and images, plus the occasional moody song or slapstick-enriched tango number. Recurring characters include detectives, the criminal proprietor of a seafood cannery, an aging movie star, an enigmatic dame in red and a suicidal working stiff who strikes up oddball acquaintanceships on a skyscraper window ledge. Recurrent clues include a newspaper-wrapped fish — a red herring, of course.
Hansen provides almost all the music (“Put the Blame on Mame,” etc.), playing multiple instruments at one side of the stage. The other performers caper through the action, which is rich in striking tableaux and physical comedy. In one funny scene, an over-the-top barroom brawl unreels in fluid super-slow motion.
In keeping with the show’s nostalgic aesthetic, “Cabaret Noir” uses some delightful low-tech special effects. In the production’s most ingenious device, puppetry (designed by Vernon) conjures a gritty cinematic image — a newspaper blowing down a windy city street. Did I say “city street”? Let’s make that an alley in the asphalt jungle.
Cabaret Noir: A Film Noir Inspired Theatrical Montage Presented by Happenstance Theater. Music composed and/or arranged by Karen Hansen; lighting, Kevin Boyce; costumes, Sabrina Mandell. 75 minutes. Tickets $17-$23. Through April 15 at Joe’s Movement Emporium, 3309 Bunker Hill Rd., Mount Rainier. happenstance theater.com or 301-699-1819.