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Review: Barococo Sends Up a Ruling Class That Is All Style and No Substance

Happenstance Theater presents physical comedy in wigs and culottes.

Caleb Jaster, Sabrina Selma Mandell, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Gwen Grastorf, Alex Vernon, and Mark Jaster in Happenstance Theater's Barococo, directed by Mark Jaster and Sabrina Selma Mandell, at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Richard Termine)

A flash of brocade and powdered wig is enough to slow my gallop through the vasty fields of streaming television. Versailles on Netflix was a particular favorite, although my attention has recently turned to The Gilded Age on HBO. Costume dramas are perennial draws on screen and stage: The more decadent the era, the better. Happenstance Theater seems to understand this with Barococo, the physical theater company's exploration of the fashions, manners, and habits of the leisure class of the 18th century now playing at 59E59 Theaters.

Devised jointly by the cast under the direction of Mark Jaster and Sabrina Selma Mandell (who also appear onstage), Barococo seems to take place in a Rococo salon as imagined by Jean-Paul Sartre. The aristocrats within have names like Dauphine Marionette (Sarah Olmstead Thomas) and Duc Leslie Pamplemousse de Citron-Pressé (Alex Vernon). They play parlor games, dabble in intrigue, gorge themselves, and peer suspiciously toward the exit.

Alex Vernon, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Mark Jaster, Sabrina Selma Mandell, and Gwen Grastorf appear in Barococo.
(© Richard Termine)

Like most devised theater, Barococo is driven by the performances. Mandell and Vernon engage in a duel of wits (the funniest part of the script) that becomes an actual duel with rapiers. In her habitually uneasy gaze, Gwen Grastorf (playing Baroness Constance Blandford Plainview) seems to suggest an entire play about a provincial noblewoman who never quite acclimates to the strange manners of the court. Everyone in the cast gives incredible face during a mimed feast that descends into a raucous food fight.

Physical comedy isn't the only talent on display: As the musician Luccio Patatino von Dusselkopf, Caleb Jaster thrillingly accompanies the proceedings on harpsichord, leading the cast in a performance of the Sarabande from Handel's Suite in D Minor (famously featured in Barry Lyndon). Mandell stands out with her hilariously anachronistic castanet solo. She has also designed all the costumes (with construction by Nancy Mendez). They could just as easily slip into a Broadway revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses as they could sashay down the runway of RuPaul's Drag Race.

Mark Jaster, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Sabrina Selma Mandell, Alex Vernon, and Gwen Grastorf appear in Barococo.
(© Richard Termine)

With so much going for it, it is a pity that Barococo doesn't really go anywhere, persisting for 70 minutes as a live diorama of the ancien régime. Theater doesn't always have to have a story, but this show seems to really want one — especially during a late scene that has our characters marching to the guillotine. Barococo might really benefit from a writer who could shape the raw material mined by the company (Jaster and Vernon's alpha-male posturing, Thomas's clueless privilege, Grastorf's haunted visage) into a shimmering narrative as sharp as any plummeting blade.

Then again, this hour of conspicuous consumption and confrontation (complete with a table flip) contains about as much substance as your average episode of Real Housewives — and Americans can't seem to get enough of that ever-expanding franchise. Perhaps form really does trump content in the post-Trump world. Either way, one cannot help but suspect that when the bell finally does toll for the useless ruling class of the 21st century, the revolution really will be televised.