But like other performing arts groups, Happenstance has had to shift to the cyber-realm during the coronavirus pandemic. Now available online is an interactive website called “The Juxtapose Tenement,” a virtual installation of sorts, inspired by the box assemblages of American visual artist Joseph Cornell. Requiring about an hour to navigate — and designed, with a homespun feel, to be experienced on your desktop or laptop computer, not mobile device — “Juxtapose Tenement” conjures a retro apartment building whose eccentric, lonely occupants live in rooms that resemble shadow boxes, full of enigmatic and poetic objects. Clicking on the objects (an antique map, a broken goblet, a pair of scissors, etc.) triggers snippets of video or animation that evoke the occupants’ pastimes and fantasies. There’s a soap-bubble-blowing session. A seashell broadcasting T.S. Eliot’s poetry. A ballet with dancers whose hands are lobster claws.
“Juxtapose Tenement” is, on one level, a musing about life in isolation, say Happenstance artistic co-directors Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell, who are married.
“It’s definitely a product of the moment, both in terms of the process that generated it and of the world that it depicts: of people in their rooms,” Jaster says.
“And their solitude,” Mandell adds, in a joint Zoom interview.
“Juxtapose Tenement” grew out of “Juxtapose,” a stage show the five-member troupe was working on during a residency at Joe’s Movement Emporium in January 2020, in preparation for a planned run at the Capital Fringe Festival. During the residency, the ensemble developed characters and a linking concept informed by Cornell, whose iconic boxes filled with found objects seem to brim with mystery and lyricism — qualities that have made him a favorite of Jaster and Mandell’s.
When the pandemic ruled out live performance, “We went into despair,” says Mandell, a performer and Helen Hayes Award-winning costume designer, whose Happenstance job titles include “visionary tornado.” But then she realized that a digital platform suited a Cornell homage.
“Computers are shadow boxes,” she observes. “Computers are like portals to the imagination, if used properly. And, to me, it’s weirdly the most natural locus for a production inspired by his work.”
So the ensemble members returned to their “Juxtapose” characters: oddball figures like performer Gwen Grastorf’s black-shawled brooder Spilleth; Sarah Olmsted Thomas’s crustacean-obsessed ballerina Étoile; Mandell’s concierge; and Alex Vernon’s Blue, who loves cerulean marbles. Each performer designed a shadowbox room for his or her alter ego, and then channeled the character’s quirks in filming sessions, done either in isolation or outdoors and socially distanced.
Green-screen compositing helped with the fantastical sequences, as when — in a visual pun that nods at Belgian surrealist René Magritte — the bald head of Jaster’s character, a collector, emerges from beneath an egg-scattered desert. (Vernon worked on the green-screening and other editing and effects.)
“Juxtapose Tenement” echoes previous Happenstance productions with its impish moods; collage-style aesthetic; reliance on movement and image rather than words; and vintage look and sound. (The music includes bits of Debussy and Offenbach, as well as Rat Pack entertainer Dean Martin singing “The Lady with the Big Umbrella.”) But the give-and-take of a stage show was impossible because of pandemic protocols.
“Part of what we explored back at Joe’s was: What does this character do when they meet this character? How do they interact? What is their relationship as a community? And that was lost,” Jaster says wistfully. (Digital wizardry does allow for illusions of togetherness, like a side-by-side tea party.)
The theatrical aspects of “Juxtapose Tenement” came naturally to the Happenstance artists, but they “were babes in the woods” when it came to digital production, Jaster says. Logistical issues needed to be hashed out. For example, subtle on-screen movements indicate when a tenement object is hyperlinked. There was discussion about whether a hyperlinked dangling umbrella should swing (which real umbrellas do) rather than throb (which real umbrellas generally don’t).
Initially aimed at a 2020 release, the project dragged on, eventually passing through the hands of two digital consultants. One thorny issue involved directionality: Re-tracing one’s steps is typically an option on hyperlinked websites, but the links on “Juxtapose Tenement” allow only for forward navigation.
“We had a test audience, and a lot of people had a hard time with that,” Mandell says.
But allowing for backward navigation added technical complexity. And besides, “in theater — which is who we are — you don’t get to go back, unless you come see it again,” Jaster points out.
Theater (no instant replay allowed) may be the medium for a future incarnation of the “Juxtapose” project, the artistic co-directors say. When live performance is possible again, Happenstance’s focus is unlikely to be iHappenstance.
Digital work “is not what I really want to be doing,” Jaster says. “But given that we can’t do what we really want to be doing . . . ”
“ . . . we’re making the best,” Mandell interjects, finishing his thought.
The Juxtapose Tenement
Happenstance Theater. happenstancetheater.com.
Dates: On long-term view (at least six months) at happenstancetenement.com.
Admission: $15, by suggested donation.