If you happen upon Happenstance Theater during the next few weeks, count on some good old-fashioned entertainment. The ensemble makes its local debut at the Baltimore Theatre Project with two family-friendly shows celebrating vintage circuses and clowns.
"We have a tendency toward the nostalgic," says Sabrina Mandell, who serves as co-artistic director, business manager, performer and more.
The company got its start in the Washington metro area by, well, happenstance.
Mandell, a visual artist and former sailer aboard rigged schooners, met Mark Jaster, a student of mime legend Marcel Marceau, at a clown workshop in 2006 and the two hit it off — so well that they got married and launched their own theater troupe, Happenstance Theater.
That same year, they had a show ready for a debut at the inaugural Capital Fringe Festival.
"The timing worked really well," Mandell says. "We have used the Fringe Fest to build our momentum every year."
Happenstance soon came to the attention of the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, which became another frequent home for what developed into a six-member company.
Billed as "visual, poetic theater," Happenstance digs into traditional genres and applies an abundant dose of humor, even when considering human mortality — as in "Vanitas," inspired by 17th-century Dutch still-life paintings. Among the company's 20 original productions so far is one giving a nod to such classic vaudeville duos as George Burns and Gracie Allen.
"An organic approach informs our shows," Mandell says. "If we have a bunch of Victorian costumes, we'll come up with a Victorian show."
For example, there was "Cabaret Macabre," which takes its cue from such things as Edward Gorey drawings and gothic romances and includes a slow-motion slapstick routine dubbed "dangerous croquet." This show, which Happenstance took to the New Orleans Fringe Festival last year, will be performed at Theatre Project this fall.
Meanwhile, for its first Baltimore run, Happenstance will start off with "Impossible." The impetus for this one was a 2009 production called "Look Out Below," a "clown theater adventure" that included trapeze.
"When we were looking for what we would do next," Mandell says, "everyone wanted to explore more circus stuff. I had a great Taschen book, 'The Circus: 1870s-1950s,' and that gave me the idea to visually create the world of '30s and '40s circus."
Mandell didn't stop there. She wanted this trip down memory lane to have a deeper meaning.
"When things are really hard, we look to entertainment to cheer us up," she says, "and the circus has always been affordable entertainment for the masses. I wanted our show to relate to our current economic time. It's loosely set in the Depression. The onstage spectacle is juxtaposed with behind-the-scenes struggles. There's very little dialogue. We let the audience weave stories for themselves."
To follow "Impossible," which runs for two weekends, Happenstance will offer "Pinot and Augustine," at the Theatre Project.
"This is a little duo-clown show that Mark and I have been developing over the years, inspired by the golden age of the circus," Mandell says. "Pinot is the sophisticated clown in the white cone hat. I play Augustine, the low-status, bumbling clown who makes life hell for Pinot. There is lots of silly slapstick. It's for families, but a lot in it is aimed at adults."
Happenstance Theater regularly reaches people of all ages.
"Literally, people from 2 to 95 come to our shows," Mandell says. "It's like there is a hunger for what we do. We are mystified by it. Maybe it's because in our age of stimulating mass-media stuff, they like how we're working with our own simple production values."
If you go
"Impossible! A Happenstance Circus" runs today through June 1; "Pinot and Augustine" runs June 6 to 8 at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Tickets are $12 to $22. Call 410-752-8558, or go to theatreproject.org.