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The Rousuck Review: "Cabaret Noir"

Happenstance Theater

Cabaret Noir summons up a world where Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer or, for that matter, Guy Noir would feel right at home.

Stage versions of film noir aren’t new – Sunset Boulevard and City of Angels were big, glitzy Broadway musicals that won Tony Awards.

Washington-based Happenstance Theatre takes a much more low-key approach. Cabaret Noir is an ensemble-created work based in stylized movement, humor, mime, dance and a dash of puppetry. The show is making its world premiere at the Theatre Project.

Stylized is the key word. Film noir has a definite look and feel. Happenstance achieves that with minimal scenery – just props, really – along with stunning period costumes by the company’s founder, Sabrina Mandell.

There’s also an almost nonstop musical score composed, or borrowed and arranged, and performed by the gifted Karen Hansen – songs by everyone from Tommy Dorsey to Randy Newman.

Cabaret Noir looks good and sounds good, but it’s missing something crucial to the genre – a plot. There are hints of plot – some sort of scandal involving the owner of a seafood cannery and a murder and the mayor.

There’s also a recurring thread about a man trying to commit suicide by jumping off a ledge. He gets interrogated by the police, though it’s not completely clear why.

In fairness, I should point out that Cabaret Noir is subtitled: “A Film Noir Inspired Theatrical Montage.” The show is a series of vignettes, some of which connect to others.

But the connections -- recurring characters and snippets of plot – never fully connect or lead to a resolution. If there’s a through line, it’s hard to follow.

Part of this is due to the fact that words are not a major element in Happenstance’s productions. That’s a difficulty when it comes to the dialogue-heavy, intricately plotted genre of film noir.

At this point in its development, Cabaret Noir is caught somewhere between a bill of noir-flavored acts and a tale of mystery and intrigue. The Kander and Ebb musical, Chicago, pulls off both – but its songs progress the plot and develop characters. Cabaret Noir’s characters are just types – the hard-boiled detective, the femme fatale, the wrongly accused man.

Not that there aren’t some wonderful bits along the way – lots of them. One of the best involves a man and woman, played by Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon, who slip off a high window ledge. They cling to each other to climb back up – a feat depicted while lying prone on the floor!

At another point, Vernon is on the ledge with a different woman, Gwen Grastorf. She isn’t so lucky. No sooner does she admit, “I think I’m falling for you” then that’s what happens – another slick effect, which winds up with her singing Marlene Dietrich’s trademark “Falling in Love Again.”

There are also some beautifully staged slow-motion fight scenes, more like brawls, with the performers toppling like dominos.

One of the cleverest effects is the way Happenstance depicts wind. Actors manipulate long rods attached to newspaper pages that crinkle and careen along the floor. Or, performers dash across the stage whisking away other actors’ loosely held fedoras or eyeglasses or shoes.

Two seasons ago, Happenstance brought a circus-oriented piece to the Theatre Project. A circus is a series of acts, so that worked well structurally. Cabaret Noir wants to be a series of acts and weave in a story. Right now, like that wind-swept newspaper, parts of it are still drifting.

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.