As the lights come up on Barococo (a play written by the entire Happenstance Theater Ensemble), a spare drawing room is revealed with a few simple items placed around the space: a harpsichord and bench, a cello in a stand, a large table upon which sits a vase containing five plumes, a deck of cards, and a small stand for fencing foils.
Standing around those items are several noble-looking people dressed resplendently from head to toe:
Baroness Constance (Gwen Grastorf), overly powdered and wide-eyed, reads a book (“how novel!”) while not so stealthily watching what the others are doing;
Astorio (Mark Jaster, also co-director) postures with a fencing foil, expertly displaying his buffoonery;
Countess Olympia (Sabrina Selma Mandell, also co-director and costume/wig designer), ornately dressed to brighten the otherwise dim memory of her youth, aggressively shuffles cards, and lays out hands for herself;
Dauphine Marionette (Sarah Olmsted Thomas) plays a childish game of hopscotch while twirling around blindfolded by her own handkerchief;
Duc Leslie (Alex Vernon) shamelessly follows the Baroness around the room with a confidence far greater than his bearing might suggest;
Young musician Luccio (Caleb Jaster) plays at the harpsichord (not so splendidly dressed, but suitably enough for a person in his station).
Per the program, Barococo is a portmanteau of the words “Baroque” and “Rococo,” and like the middle ground between these two words and worlds, these French nobles appear as though to be suspended between two places, unsure from where they’ve come or to where they’re going, and the audience is left artfully mystified until the end.
These clearly entitled characters entertain themselves with ridiculous parlor games,
like “find the apple” (“we have no apple”), “whipping the cat,” “charades,” “the flattery game,” “hide and seek,” and “riddles.” Olympia tries her hand at a riddle:
No Monarch can escape me; Their triumphs and mine are one. I will outlive you all, though all my life is done. Who am I?
After several completely off-the-mark guesses, Constance declares meekly that the answer to the riddle is “history.” She states the following, which is just one of the many bits of uncomfortable foreshadowing:
And soon we will all be history.
During charades, the Dauphine Marionette elaborate pantomime fails to garner correct guesses, until she finally blurts out, “I was eating cake!,” an action which suggests a similar line delivered by another famous French noblewoman (an idea further suggested if ‘Marionette’ is another portmanteau).
The game playing comes to an ultimately climax when the Dauphine expresses hunger, and all the characters put on a hysterical, skillful pantomime of dining which turns to mayhem, a game they take delight in playing and for which they practically dislocate their shoulders from patting themselves on the back for such a game well done.
Directors Jaster and Mandell have skillfully navigated this small space and proffered up some excellent physical comedy and pantomime, to no small credit from their clowning expertise. Almost every set piece is efficiently chosen and used.
Mandell’s costume and wig design are exquisite, perfectly defining each character in their own distinct look and style with numerous fabrics and colors and without overlap.
Each of the actors’ performances are as unique as their costumes. Grastorf gets many laughs from her wide-eyed, innocently naivety (or just plain dimwittedness), and Mark Jaster’s puffy bravura and expressive face are delightfully campy. Mandell’s cantankerous bawdiness is perfectly chosen for her character, and Thomas plays the narcissistic Dauphine with laughable presumptuousness. Vernon’s pretentious, foppish roguery is spot on for his role, and Caleb Jaster as the simple musician interacts perfectly when called upon. Each actor’s facial expressions, gestures and gaits are very distinct and in line with their characters.
Throughout the frothy attempts of these characters to entertain themselves, there occasionally come knocks from a door off-stage, and when the final knock comes to deliver the last fateful letter, none of them wants to take it. The play ends with them singing in unison:
You cannot starve the people, and not expect to pay.
You can’t ignore the people, and not expect to pay.
You cannot lie to the people, and not expect to pay.
The script states “The Consequences of Oblivious, Privileged Behavior are Dire,” and the ending of this delightful comedy with dark undertones makes that more than clear.
Barococo (through March 6, 2022)
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets visit http://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/barococo-2022/
Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission