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Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec

Devised by Bated Breath Theatre Company members; Directed by Mara Lieberman
Produced by Bated Breath Theatre Company

Off Off Broadway, Site-specific Play
Runs through 8.7.19
Madame X, 94 West Houston Street

 

by Asya Gorovits on 6.25.19

 

Unmaking Toulouse-LautrecSean Hinckle and Nicole Orabona in Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec. Photo by Mia Aguirre.

 

BOTTOM LINE: A site-specific biography of Toulouse-Lautrec combines cabaret and immersive theatre to create an atmosphere of Moulin Rouge in the late 19th century.   

I am submerged in the dim red light from the moment I enter Madame X, a downtown bar lounge—what a perfect site for Bated Breath Theatre Company’s Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec, a show that celebrates the French artist and his famous hangout spot, the Moulin Rouge. A large elongated upstairs lounge offers red velvet couches and leopard puffs for guests to sit on. And while there's a bar that guests are encouraged to frequent during the performance, nobody wants to walk across “the stage” and disturb the action, so most don't take advantage.

This is where Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec misses the mark a little—it doesn’t quite succeed in being fully immersive (except for the very last scene). Despite the somewhat unconventional seating, the division between the audience and the action is in place. Yet even so, the show still might be of interest to audiences seeking a more intimate theatrical experience, especially for those who like fine art. 

The show, devised by members of the company, consists of a couple dozen vignettes based on Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s biography. It's essentially a memory play with a collage structure, where some parts are more successful than others in clearly conveying both the factual biography and emotional state of the artist. One of my favorite scenes was the dance of the artist’s parents Adele (Nicole Orabona) and Henri (Sean Hinckle), one that combines choreography and spoken word to create a palpable sense of passion and pain. Being first cousins, they blamed themselves for Henri’s genetic disorder, one that stopped the growth of his legs when he was a teenager. But Bated Breath relies too much on background knowledge of the protagonist's life; those without such deep knowledge might miss some things. At least there are prints of Toulouse-Lautrec's works all over the room to refresh memory.

The fine-tuned choreography (consultant Tara O’Con) blends dance with everyday ritual, making for some of the most memorable moments, like the recurring scene of Henri drinking tea with his mother. There is also can-can dancing and dirty songs galore. Much like Toulouse-Lautrec's art, Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec combines both high and low, creating a stimulating cocktail of genres where you might well have no idea what’s going to happen in the next scene. The inventive use of props underscores how effective even the simplest theatre magic can be, whether it's an umbrella imitating a bird's flapping wings, a marionette emerging from under Adele’s crinoline, or boxes lit from within.

If only the production made use of the resource that is the audience. Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec is framed as a funeral wake for the artist, where folks reminisce and remember, hence the collage structure. The audience members are meant to be attendees, but this only becomes evident at the end. After the turmoil of flying skirts, we return to the wake, and short glasses of white wine are passed around for everyone to drink to the departed artist (although perhaps the artist's own Earthquake cocktail—half absinthe, half cognac—would have been even more suitable). Unfortunately, it is not until this moment when the audience is finally engaged directly, and invited to the story.    

(Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec plays at Madame X, 94 West Houston Street, through August 7, 2019. The running time is 1 hour with no intermission. Performances are Wednesdays at 7 and 9. Tickets are $35 general admission, $25 bar/standing, and are available at unmakinglautrecplay.com.)

Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec is Devised by Bated Breath Theatre Company members: Mia Aguirre, Derya Celikkol, Marisa Gold, Sean Hinckle, Allison Houser, Matt Mastromatteo, Nicole Orabona, David Raposo, and Lauren Winigrad. Directed by Mara Lieberman. Choreography Consultant is Tara O’Con. Production Design by Derya Celikkol. Sound Design by Nathan Leigh. Costume Design by Gail Fresia. Stage Manager is Sophia Leewah.

The cast is Sean Hinckle, Allison Houser, Nicole Orabona, David Raposo, Derya Celikkol, and Lauren Winigrad.