‘Adrift: A Medieval Wayward Folly’ Review: Demons, Dulcimers, and Dancing Strawberries

Using music, dance, puppets, miming, and physical comedy, the Happenstance Theater brings late medieval paintings to life—though with more whimsy than allegorical depth.

The Happenstance Theater ensemble in Adrift: A Medieval Wayward Folly at at 59E59. L Hewitt Photography

Adrift: A Medieval Wayward Folly | 65mins. No intermission. | 59E59 Theaters | 59 East 59th Street | 212-753-5959

Adrift: A Medieval Wayward Folly is performed in a starkly empty black box theater at 59E59. A spare set piece, a ship’s mast, inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s Ship of Fools, is perched in one corner. The set piece, like the performance itself, is handmade and vigorously detailed. It looks like a close up or a cut out from the 15th century painting. As one can surmise from the play’s title, the performance takes much of its inspiration from the art and music of the Middle Ages. The enthusiastically crafted scenarios, all performer created, with costumes, puppets, and set designed by the Happenstance ensemble, are partly homages to specific artworks from the late medieval and early Renaissance period. Specifically, they were inspired by works by Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, as well as illuminated alchemical and medical texts from the same period. With music, dance, puppets, miming, and physical comedy, and using minimal language, the performers recreate symbols and scenarios from these late medieval masterworks. 

The ensemble presents a vast array of performance skills: clowning, miming, sleight of hand, puppeteering, dancing, singing (in Latin and French), and medieval instrumentation (hurdy-gurdy, recorder, and hand harp, to name only a few.) Audiences anticipating a Monty Python-like lampooning of the Middle Ages will be disappointed. While its playfulness and its series of comedic interlocking sketches are reminiscent of a Cambridge Footlights show, its multiskilled ensemble, both as performers and craftspeople, raise the bar and transform a sketch comedy act into something far stranger and more beautiful.

The Happenstance Theater ensemble in Adrift: A Medieval Wayward Folly at at 59E59. L Hewitt Photography

The performance begins with a puppet world besieged by storms and tornadoes and ultimately engulfed in flames. After this puppet apocalypse, the ensemble gather on a “ship of fools” that is adrift and doomed, with no sailors or destination. With only a barrel hoop for a ship, the performers are all keen mimes, mimicking the rolling waves on the wind tossed ship; all while in character as hapless medieval peasants. In the next scenario, ensemble members Sabrina Mandell and Alex Vernon, dressed as anthropomorphic hay creatures—their attire reminiscent of ancient mumming costumes—ascend barrels and answer questions gathered from the audience. The most visually arresting scene in the entire performance, it is impressive as tableau vivant alone. Mandell and Vernon’s synchronicity as they perform as one being, moving like antique clockwork dolls, an infectious mania in their expressions, is a special work of performance art in itself. While Adrift often treats its source material with breathless worship, this scene takes stylistic cues from Bosch and Bruegel and then dives somewhere completely new and different. 

Similarly, another standout performance is Sarah Olmstead Thomas as the furred and horned demon: a venal and playful critter straight out of Bosch’s Hell. Like Mandell and Vernon as the hay prophets, Olmstead Thomas embodies her fiendish character. She bestrides the stage, humping legs and rubbing her ass on the floor like a dog in heat, spitting and speaking a devilish glossolalia. A dynamic physical comedian, Olmstead Thomas takes up space; her demon breaks out of the medieval painting and engages the audience in three dimensions. 

Shadow puppets, marionettes, and painted puppets all play a role in Adrift: A Medieval Wayward Folly. L Hewitt Photography

Also noteworthy is the puppeteering throughout the show: Olmstead Thomas’s shadow puppet work, Vernon’s marionette puppeteering, and Mandell’s painted puppets mimicking windblown trees in the opening scene. Skillfully performed and stylistically integrated, this eclectic pastiche of medieval symbols are a splendid homage to the source materials. Similarly, the prolific instrumentation and cinematic use of sound immerse the audience in Bosch’s crowded, two-dimensional spaces.

As inspiration for clowning and puppeteering it doesn’t get much better than medieval art. With such a wealth of material to draw from, I was a little disappointed by the absence of pacing or narrative structure in Adrift. We drift dreamily from scene to scene, the adorable scenarios hanging together loosely, like animated short films. I longed for a narrative throughline that would allow me to become emotionally invested in the work. With an entire show chock full of medieval iconography, heavy with meaning, the performance itself turns away from meaning and permanence. However beautifully crafted the costumes and puppets, the scenarios seem just too fragmented and child-like for adults to latch onto with our grownup and complex emotional bodies.

 Co-directors Sabrina Mandell and Mark Jaster state in the program that they became interested in medieval artworks because they showed how “magic and mystery were woven into everyday life, when people still felt they were not so separate from the natural world.” Their lovingly handcrafted performance does a good job of displaying how nature’s cycles, the changing of the seasons, the cycles of growth, life, and death, were of a piece to the medieval peasant. Where the divine was unfathomable and yet always close at hand. Mandell and Jaster connect this theme to our own time, stating, “In our current moment in history, humanity is facing a reckoning with nature. The dire global climate crisis has us seeking ways to adapt and manage. Perhaps if we listen closely to the mystery, we can discover how.” 

Like medieval art, the Adrift speaks through surfaces and affect. Compared to a medieval peasant, however, a modern audience is iconographically blind. An illiterate 15th century peasant read symbols the way that Happenstance’s audience reads text. The arcane symbols in Bosch’s paintings would have been rich in meaning to his contemporaries. Removed from their context, brought forward as absurdist puppets, that richness doesn’t translate over. Without much in the way of storyline, the directors’ lofty themes have little to latch onto. Some kind of narrative spine to go along with the carefully presented miming, music, and puppeteering, might have brought out some of that richness of meaning.

If the dizzyingly complex paintings of Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder could speak, they would speak volumes. A play, however, unlike a 15th century triptych, can speak. While Happenstance’s medieval scenarios are charming and beautifully crafted, I came away wishing they had grappled more dynamically with the content from the late medieval paintings that inspired them. However appealing and whimsical, their literal, surface approach to these often allegorical masterworks too often turns away from their rich and terrifying substance. 

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‘Adrift: A Medieval Wayward Folly’ Review: Demons, Dulcimers, and Dancing Strawberries