Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) is one of the best known visual chroniclers of Post Impressionist bohemian Paris. Henri was born with congenital health issues to aristocratic first cousins. He also fractured his femur at age 13 growing to be only 4’8” tall with child-sized legs and an adult torso. Unable to participate in physical activities, he immersed himself in art.
Lautrec suffered mocking throughout his painful life, dying of alcoholism and syphilis. He’s perhaps best known for work depicting the Moulin Rouge (the club and its denizens accepted him, reserving a seat, displaying his paintings), prostitutes he frequented, and circus images. In 2005, his portrait of a young laundress sold at Christie’s Auction House for 22.4 million dollars.
Bated Breath Theater Company presents an evocative impression of Lautrec’s life in an intimate, upstairs bar room lined with chairs and couches. (Drinks are available) Arrive early to be seated at the front; sightlines are an issue as some of the play is enacted on the floor. (I would suggest changing this.) A slight mezzanine at one end of the room is clear to anyone.
The cast enters in a candlelight procession as Alphonse Charles Comte de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa (David Raposo) tells us of his son’s death. Raposo’s turn as the senior Lautrec has appropriate ego and gravitas. Costumes conjure the era. (Gail Fresia)
“I met Henri at The Madame Rouge,” begins Jane Avril (Marisa Gold), a red-headed can-can dancer made famous by his work. (I can find no reference to Madame Rouge in Lautrec’s life, only Moulin Rouge.) “He was one of my closest friends.” The character will intermittently read letters written by Lautrec (Sean Hinckle) and his family, sharing a personal point of view. “Everywhere and always ugliness has its beautiful aspects; it is thrilling to discover them where nobody else has noticed them.” Henri de Toulouse Lautrec
We’re then welcomed by Aristide Bruant (David Raposo), singer, songwriter, cabaret entrepreneur – a poster by Lautrec made him iconic. (Excellent costuming.) Bruant tells us the club’s arrangement “comforts me like the G train.” Modern references – many come from this character – do the opposite of what the company imagines by taking us out of the scenario (and putting us in the Catskills). Apart from these speeches, this is a fairly good introduction for any layman and theatrical reminder for those familiar with the artist.
Can Can girls: Mia Aguirre, Lauren Winegrad, Derya Celikkol and Marisa Gold, dance, preen, vogue, literally pose, tease “a little monster” and encourage diminutive Lautrec. Much of the engaging movement in this production is slow motion. This is particularly effective when Lautrec is in a drunken, absinthe-induced haze. “Of course, one should not drink much but often.” (HTL) And as Alphonse balletically makes love to his wife while disparaging his inadequate son. (Choreography- Tara O’Con)
Madame Adèle de Toulouse Lautrec was an emotional influence with which to be reckoned. (Derya Celikkol steps in for Nicole Orabona with grace, but no warmth.) We see her first across the stage in a white hoop skirt carrying a parasol. When his parents separated, the boy lived with his concerned mother in Paris. (It was she who promoted his art after death.) Throughout the play, he plaintively calls “maman!” at intervals, yet we see anger as well. Later, living separately, they have rigorously scheduled teas. “Henri, your fingernails are filthy,” she comments every time.
Several rousing folk songs are performed, one raunchy, enlivening history. Background music is adroitly chosen and beautifully inserted to enhance. (Sound Composition/Design – Nathan Leigh) Modernity intrudes a few times, but like sound effects rather than tunes. The exception is an electronic Can Can which serves to embroil rather than take us out.
We watch Henri observe the ladies together and apart, often sketching. Some act as formal models. (Cleverly done.) He wants to touch. There are reproductions and a mention of exorbitant future sums paid for the work. Aria da capo, narrative returns to Lautrec’s death and the play’s opening lines. Thimble-size plastic cups are served so that we may toast his memory.
Sean Hinkle’s Henri is sympathetic, but the actor doesn’t seem to have settled on specific emotions which shows. (A bit more beard would serve resemblance.)
“I paint things as they are. I don’t comment.” (HTL)
Production Photos by Mia Aguirre Photo of Toulouse Lautrec Public Domain
Bated Breath Theatre Company presents Unmaking Toulouse Lautrec Directed and Conceived by Mara Lieberman
Through August 7, 2019
94 West Houston Street, between LaGuardia Place and Thompson Street