The play Vanitas at Happenstance Theater. The Queen, The Musican, and The Fool. The play features, Mark Jaster, Sabrina Mandell, Karen Hansen, Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas & Alex Vernon. Image provided by Happenstance Theater. (Leslie McConnaughey)

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.”


Through April 14 at Round House Theatre, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. 240-644-1100. $15.