The three vaudeville-era performers of Music Hall make a great deal out of a stool, a ladder, a curtain, and a few costumes as they recount memories and twist the realities of their sad old-time song-and-dance act. Broadway veteran Jeffrey Binder leads the cast of this angry, emotional, and very funny play as The Artiste, a vain, manipulative, domineering small-time stage star who gives us a sort of stage autobiography backed by her two Boys (Michael Doonan and Darren Hill), the latest in a succession of easily-replaced supporting players.
Zeljko Djukic directs Joseph Long’s witty translation of Jean-Luc Lagarce’s self-aware piece of meta-theater in a production by TUTA Theatre Chicago, now at 59E59 Theaters in New York through April 12. The team works to preserve their show’s “harmonious configuration,” The Artiste with increasing desperation, the Boys with Beckettian irony. The portrayal of The Artiste by a male actor underlines the character’s fundamental artificiality, especially as Binder first appears simply as an unadorned male actor with no feminine accoutrements, then gets dressed and made up gradually without ever donning any drag-typical extravagance.
In fact, The Artiste’s dress and boa and bling add up to sadness more than glitter. The heyday of the vaudeville-style show she and the Boys have been staging for some 15 years has passed; the theaters they play are out of the way are sparsely attended; and “stepping off the boat,” if it was ever the reality, has given way to arriving on foot after a long walk, followed all too often, come curtain time, by an annoyingly short one up a stage lacking adequate depth and even a door to enter from.
The choreography by movement director Aileen McGroddy, gracefully yet somehow awkwardly elegant, illustrates the whole sad act’s contradictions. The same goes for the singing, especially when First Boy and Second Boy croon in unison without ever quite getting in tune with one another. Keith Parham’s clever lighting plays up the artificiality of the whole situation as well as the worn finery of Natasha Djukic’s costumes.
The key drivers of the production, though, are, first, Binder’s gorgeously overweening performance, adroitly directed by Zeljko Djukic, and, second, the gloriously self-aware language of the script, with its artful pacing, snappy character-revealing phrasing, comically lengthy subordinate clauses, and sheer nuttiness. When a theater management insists on a guarantee that the wooden stool brought in by the performers won’t spontaneously burst into flames, we know we’re standing with one leg in absurdity. But only one. This stool’s other two (or three) legs rest on solid ground, however shifty the action around them. Desperate as she may be, this Artiste and her Boys succeed in doing their “full turn” on their stool – for us, her meta-audience, at least.