What is it? Rockville, Md.-based Happenstance Theater creates a series of avant-garde, laugh-inducing montages centered around a 1920s-era day at the beach.

Why see it? It won best comedy at last year’s Capital Fringe festival in Washington, D.C. It’s not improv comedy. It’s a more refined but lighthearted journey between the wars, centered on the sea. “It conjures up the idea of traveling, because the whole thing is a voyage you’re being taken on, like looking through a scrapbook of old postcards,” says producer, writer, actor, and former Charlestonian Sabrina Mandell. “And I change costumes about a million times.”

Who should go? As a hybridization of comedy and theater, Low Tide Hotel has almost universal appeal. It’s not super dramatic. It’s full of whimsical songs. And it should be lighthearted enough for older kids and adults.

PICCOLO SPOLETO • $15 • 50 min. • May 24, 27, and 29 at 8 p.m., May 26 at 7 p.m., May 30 at 8:30 p.m. • American Theater, 446 King St. • (888) 374-2656

Dada Day at the Beach: Low Tide Hotel seeks salty and surreal laughs


Think Coney Island, circa 1925.

Imagine mermaids circling a ship on a Titanic-era voyage across the ocean. Hear the strains of an old-timey lounge singer as you duck into a club in the hopping boardwalk beach town of Anywhere Atlantic, U.S.A.

Low Tide Hotel is the creation of Sabrina Mandell, a Charleston expatriate who moved to Rockville, Md., where she founded the Happenstance Theater. With a cast comprised of Mandell, Mark Jaster, and Scott Feder, the piece takes a journey through every facet of a bygone maritime era, simultaneously conjuring up nostalgia and chuckles.

The piece won Best Comedy at Washington, D.C.’s 2007 Capital Fringe Festival, a fair indication that it is indeed funny.

“Calling it avant-garde experimental tends to make people run away,” says Mandell. “There’s a lot of humor in it, but the best description is probably ‘poetic.'”

By dubbing Hotel “comedy,” it gives them a little more marketing flexibility, explains Mandell. Full of songs that “take you back in time,” certain scenes in previous performances have led audiences to laugh out loud. The absence of a storyline allows the cast to slide smoothly between amusing montages.

“It conjures the idea of traveling, because the whole thing is sort of a voyage, like looking through a scrapbook of postcards,” says Mandell. “It’s surrealist ocean travel.

“I change costumes about a million times — the real show is backstage,” Mandell adds.

She compares Hotel to an “old-fashioned luggage label” — unspecific to any one location but reminiscent of particular places at the same time.

“The scenes are universalized so they can be identified as general maritime. We thought Charleston would be perfect because of the maritime history there,” she says.

For Mandell, it’s also an excuse to return to an old stomping ground. Years ago, she hosted a one-woman Piccolo sideshow at the farmers’ market.

Even her answer to the question, “Why should I come see Low Tide Hotel?” rings poetic.

“It’s a satisfying cultural riff, an enchanting whimsical montage of maritime-themed songs and literary excerpts,” she says.

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