BWW Review: Unabashed, Unbound: UNMAKING TOULOUSE-LAUTREC By Bated Breath Theatre Company at MADAME X
Straying from the traditional "one playwright, one narrative" dramatic structure, the through line of this devised 60-minute show is a series of 20+ vignettes skimming the life and times of notable and troubled French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
The individual scenes, which range from "Nice Tea With Mother" to "Venereal Diseases Aren't Funny: The Doctor" serve up brief-but-beguiling sketches of the people, places and problems of his 36-year life. What hinders this production is not the performers themselves, but the cramped performance space that affects lighting, actor movement, and audience sight lines.
Sean Hinckle navigates the lead role with an imploring vulnerability; watching him undergo a controversial medical procedure is emotionally brutal. Allison Houser (Jane Avril) brings to life the spirit of Lautrec's muse with a patient intensity, and David Raposo demonstrates considerable range as both the flamboyant Aristide Bruant (a French cabaret singer, comedian and nightclub owner) and the stoic, dismayed Alphonse de Toulouse Latrec (Henri's father).
Alphonse writes, "Dear Henri, enclosed you will find 15 of your lithographs: returned. Your uncle sent them to me. At first I wouldn't believe it was my son who could create such ugliness. As if one was not enough, I found 15 of the same drawings in the package and had to relive the horror over and over and over again. If I could, I'd relieve you of the Toulouse-Lautrec family crest."
Unmaking is a contemporary example of immersive devised theatre. N'ai pas peur; "immersive" in this case is more environmental than participatory. Translation: even in this Paris vis-à-vis New York, you are not at risk of being kicked in the head by a Can Can dancer or brought onstage for some burlesque grinding. It's still Moulin Rouge randy, and there are plenty of giggles, grins, groans, corsets, kick lines and caressing.
Although restrained from a space perspective, the Bated Breath troupe is not short on creative ideas. Marionette? Check. Syphilis jokes? Plenty.
An example of a scene that works particularly well is "Painting Today's Masterpieces in the Studio," which features a blank canvas being painted texturally from behind, accompanied by narration explaining the painting's current-market value. The auction serves as a reminder that the value of art is in the eye of the beholder, and eventually the highest bidder.
Votre attention s'il vous plait: you'll want to arrive early at Madame X for Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec for two reasons: to grab a drink (full bar minus absinthe), and to meander through the lush bohemian performance space that includes tasseled lamps, walls full of Toulouse-Lautrec artwork, and a crimson crushed-velvet couch. On the Wednesday night I attended this show, the intimate house was full and abuzz. No doubt part of the intrigue was generated by the Instagram-ready climb-in-and-repose window. You, too, can be part of Toulouse-Lautrec's tribe.
UNMAKING TOULOUSE-LAUTREC runs through August 7. Tickets are available here.