I don’t know about you, but I get really tired of those Toulouse-Lautrec posters. Aristide Bruant, Grande Redoute, that black cat – the whole infernal deck. These images have been seared into my brain since I first saw them imprinted on bars of soap half a century ago at my grandmother’s. Today these persistent icons of middlebrow culture are on coasters in my coffee table, on a wall in my living room, in the common space of my mother’s retirement community, and just about everywhere else I look.
Why? They’re arresting images in themselves, of course. But it’s also true that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his milieu continue to fascinate us. Bated Breath Theatre Company gives us a new take on the artist in Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec. This intimate one-act presents the artist and the legendary Moulin Rouge in shadowy high relief and with an aura of weirdness. An all-in cast and crew quicken the proceedings with slinky dances, Nathan Leigh’s sensuous, sometimes scary music, and readings of letters, most between the artist and his beloved mother Adele.
The show is like a graphic-novel version of Toulouse-Lautrec’s life story, with much of the text replaced by visual and sound pictures. Staged in the cozy upstairs bar at Madame X – which styles itself “the sexiest bar in New York City” – it lacks a real theater’s technical benefits (e.g. good lighting), but the venue graces it with a kind of atmospheric verisimilitude. Conceived by director Mara Lieberman, but “devised” by the company collectively, the show loses focus now and then, but succeeds in creating an engaging psychological world.
Black-clad Toulouse-Lautrec (Sean Hinckle) has little to say; his stare and his limp tell us what we need to know. It’s his parents, and the women of the Moulin Rouge whom he immortalized in his art, who populate this “book”‘s dialogue balloons and ink its panels with color and shadow.
Standout stagecraft energizes the action: the artist’s regular teas with his mother, identical down to the solitary last; an excruciating attempt by a quack practitioner to straighten out his legs; his bothersome posing of his sometimes reluctant subjects; his creepily sensuous caressing of his own two-dimensional depiction of one of them.
Allison Houser is a vivacious Jane Avril, Nicole Orabona a convincing dream-mother, and David Raposo effective as the artist’s leering womanizer of a father. Gail Fresia’s glittery costumes make everything deliciously overcooked, and sometimes act as props too.
Altogether Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec is a weird and wonderful little show. It puts those ubiquitous posters in context, and it possesses enough theater magic to entertain people unfamiliar with the artist and his haunts.
As I write this, Nicole Kidman is staring at me from the cover of the current Vanity Fair. The Baz Luhrmann film Moulin Rouge, in which Kidman starred, treated some of the same history in a vastly different way. If that celluloid extravaganza is your image of that place and time, Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec will bring you, if not down to earth, then into an intimate space where the mind of a great, troubled artist can live on for a new generation. It runs Wednesdays through June 26 at Madame X. Tickets are available online.