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"Impossible! A Happenstance Circus" at the Theatre Project

Leslie McConnaughy


The Rousuck Review: "Impossible! A Happenstance Circus" at the Theatre Project. 

What does it take to make a circus? Lions and tigers? Tightropes and trapezes? Imagine a circus that trades all of those for the power of physical theater, mime, suggestion, whimsy, imagination and a backstage look that’ll touch your heart.

That describes “Impossible! A Happenstance Circus” -- the title of the charming new show at the Theatre Project. “Impossible!” is the creation of the Washington-based Happenstance Theater.

Like any circus, the “Happenstance Circus” is a series of acts. In one of these, all six cast members play ukuleles as they perform a jaunty number entitled, “Solid Potato Salad.”

Happenstance borrowed this odd little novelty song from a 1944 movie called “Broadway Rhythm” – one of a score of influences on the show, ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Robert Frost. The 1940s are significant because “Impossible!” takes place then, and in the previous decade, when Americans needed a little cheering up.

The production’s backstage glimpses also show some of the hardships the circus folks’ face – and how resilient they are. When they sing about eating potatoes because times are tough, that’s all they have to eat.

There are also amusing backstage glances. Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell play a couple embroiled in a marital quarrel as they’re about to perform their act. And just what is their act? Jaster throws knives at Mandell! There aren’t any actual knives – this is one many mimed bits at which Jaster excels. But their act has plenty of edge without blades.

Similarly, there’s no real fire in Gwen Grastorf’s performance as “The Human Phoenix.” But that doesn’t make her fire act seem any less dangerous to her frightened assistant. Unfazed, Grastorf goes blithely along, singing another ditty from Forties – “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.”

The performers also portray acrobats, an escape artist, a woman shot out of a cannon, and an animal trainer. No real animals, but Jaster proves adept at transforming himself from a cheerful chimpanzee to a prancing horse to a lion, swatting at his trainer’s whip. There’s even a sideshow, complete with a contortionist, a formerly conjoined twin, and a man billed as “The Human Rubber Band.”

The set includes two major pieces of scenery. On one side of the stage, there’s a small proscenium arch topped by a sign that spells out: “Impossible,” in light bulbs.

On the other side, there’s a cart that’s home base for Karen Hansen. This gifted musician and composer had a long relationship with Center Stage. In the course of this show, she plays drums, violin, organ, accordion, glockenspiel, bowed banjo, trombone… Well, it might be a bad pun, but Hansen is “instrumental” to this production.

In the end, who needs lions and tigers, or real fire and real knives? “Impossible! A Happenstance Circus” has its own brand of circus magic. And, when you leave, you feel as if you’ve gotten to know the folks who make this magic. You also feel that maybe – just maybe – the impossible, is possible.

-- J. Wynn Rousuck

“Impossible! A Happenstance Circus” continues at the Theatre Project through June 1. Happenstance's next show "Pinot & Augustine"  is up at the Theatre Project from June 6 to June 8.                   

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.
Jamyla Krempel is WYPR's digital content director and the executive producer of Wavelength: Baltimore's Public Radio Journey. She collaborates with reporters, program and podcast hosts to create content for WYPR’s online platforms.