Theater review by Adam Feldman
A group of people isolated together, unable to leave the room they share, facing shortages of resources, passing time through idle games to avoid thinking about the menace rising outside their walls: Sound familiar? The Washington, D.C. troupe Happenstance Theater devised Barococo before the COVID pandemic, but the timing of its delayed New York premiere is serendipitous, if not entirely germane. Staged by company artistic directors Mark Jaster and Sabrina Selma Mandell, who also appear in the cast of six, the show depicts a group of French aristocrats toward the bitter end of the 18th century. Stuck in a featureless holding cell and in holding patterns of self-amusement, they trade arch remarks, exchange riddles, play charades, and otherwise twiddle and wrestle their thumbs as they wait for the Guillotine blade of Damocles to fall.
If this sounds familiar as well, that may be because it hearkens back openly to absurdist works of the last century, with stylistic nods to the likes of Sartre, Ionesco, Buñuel, Genet and Peter Weiss. As a cautionary tale of upper-crust privilege, it doesn’t go far beyond an illustrated premise; although its characters rarely stop moving, they amount to a tableau vivant(-for-now) of perilous decadence. But at 65 minutes, Barococo is brief and diverting, thanks largely to the antics of its ensemble cast: Sarah Olmsted Thomas as the spirited Dauphine Marionette (whose name, like the play’s title, is a portmanteau); Alex Vernon as the pompous, amusingly named Duke Leslie Pamplemousse de Citron-Pressé; Jaster as a vain actor and Mandell—who also designed the elaborate costumes—as a catty countess; Gwen Grastorf as an out-of-her-depth Baroness; and Caleb Jaster as a court musician who plays a harpsichord in the corner. The climax is also the highlight: a wonderfully extended pantomime dinner that devolves into a slow-motion free-for-all. If Barococo itself doesn’t offer much to chew on, it’s a tasty little eat-the-rich hors d’oeuvre.
Barococo. 59E59 Theaters (Off Broadway). Devised by Happenstance Theater. Directed by Mark Jaster and Sabrina Selma Mandell. With Pat Kiernan. With Gwen Grastorf, Caleb Jaster, Mark Jaster, Sabrina Selma Mandell, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Alex Vernon. Running time: 1hr 5mins. No intermission.