Let’s hope the U.S. Croquet Association is not meeting in Washington in the next few weeks: Happenstance Theater’s second “Cabaret Macabre” might send the group’s members into shock. The cheerfully sinister, tongue-in-cheek sketch-and-music show — an all-new follow-up to Happenstance’s 2010 Halloween-timed offering — includes a portrait of a prim croquet match devolving into a homicidal free-for-all. Mallets swing through the air like battle-axes en route to players’ skulls (it’s all done in slow motion) as a fastidious commentator, standing to one side, reads from the official Rules of Croquet. The lawn game may not have received such a spoofing since Lewis Carroll had Alice play it with a flamingo and curled-up hedgehog.
The bloodthirsty croquet match is one of the highlights of Happenstance’s light but witty vaudeville, which pays unabashed (and acknowledged) tribute to the black-crepe-draped aesthetic of artist and writer Edward Gorey (perhaps most famous for the images in the credit sequence for PBS’s “Mystery!”). Devised and performed by a six-member ensemble — including Happenstance artistic co-directors Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell and Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s Esther Williamson — “Cabaret Macabre” often looks like a Gorey illustration brought to life. Against the backdrop of a blood-red curtain, characters stalk about in Edwardian garb — mourning weeds, top hats and tails, children’s sailor suits, an astrakhan jacket — with somber expressions or wickedly glinting eyes. Skits, songs and tableaux conjure up stories that are cartoonishly bleak: young boys who receive dueling pistols as birthday presents (with grim consequences); a husband who wheels his catatonic and legless wife around in a bath chair; demurely aproned maids who gossip about a neighbor’s unfortunate demise (“The inspector said it must have been a landmine . . .”).
Sometimes the mode is stylish inanity, as in a very funny sequence that casts the physically unerring Jaster as a pompous artiste who specializes in imitating mannequins. At other times, it’s high culture, as with a rocking-horse-focused rendering of Franz Schubert’s “Der Erlkonig,” which tells of a child terrified by a supernatural being (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote the text, interpreted here in English). Performer Karen Hansen composed and arranged the music, which showcases a piano, a cello, a mournful-sounding organ and, among other instruments, a musical saw.
All of the role-juggling performers — including Matthew Pauli and Gwen Grastorf — prove themselves to be adepts of the deadpan, the sidelong glance, the freeze and the pregnant pause. With an assist from designer Kristin A. Thompson, who contributes the severe spotlights and other lighting, they give the hour-long production the right pithy rhythms. The Schubert borrowing notwithstanding, “Cabaret Macabre” is no more weighty than a sable ostrich feather. But if you like gothic quirkiness, it’s a feather that will tickle your fancy.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Produced by Happenstance Theater.
One hour. Through Nov. 13 at Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd. 240-644-1100 or www.roundhousetheatre.org.