Although the Parisian cabaret the Moulin Rouge was most recently popularized by Baz Luhrmann’s fantastical 2001 film musical, it was French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters that brought fame to the venue during its original heyday in the late 19th century. Colorful and grotesque, his works depicted the excess, revelry, and bohemian lifestyles that defined the neighborhood of Montmartre at that time. In Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec, Bated Breath Theatre Company delivers a quick and dirty look at the man behind the paintings in NoHo’s sexy, velvet-saturated bar Madame X (a venue that befits the bordello stylings of the production’s historical time period).
A lover of theatrical performance, women, and absinthe, Toulouse-Lautrec lived a life intimately intertwined with the subjects of his paintings, who were mostly the painted ladies and can-can dancers of the Moulin Rouge stage and parlors. With little over an hour to portray the artist’s entire career, Bated Breath focuses on its defining moments, such as a childhood accident that permanently maimed him, his troubled relationship with his parents, and the artist’s spiral into alcoholism. Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec, under the direction of Mara Lieberman, utilizes the typical structure of devised theater by eschewing a traditionally linear storyline in favor of thematic episodes. While some vignettes are stronger than others, the ensemble’s collaborative relationship helps each scene flows seamlessly into the next.
Toulouse-Lautrec is lovingly portrayed by Sean Hinckle, who resists exaggerating the artist’s signature limp and small stature, but instead focuses on his tragic passion for excess (a feature which is also reflected his painterly aesthetic). Supporting Toulouse-Lautrec are his muse, Jane Avril (Allison Houser) and his mother, Adèle de Toulouse-Lautrec (Nicole Orabona). Both Houser and Orabona add surprising depth to characters that could easily fall on either side of the madonna-whore paradigm. David Raposo (who also plays Toulouse-Lautrec’s father), Lauren Winigrad, and Derya Celikkol round out the collaborative with strong vocals and consistently high energy. At times, the ensemble’s execution of Tara O'Con’s choreography seemed hesitant, but that may have been due to the venue’s spatial limitations.
While the ensemble members support one another, they are less supported by the sound facilities of Madame X’s upstairs performance venue. That’s not to say that the musical accompaniment was poorly designed; on the contrary, Nathan Leigh’s sound design is a creative blend of contemporary club beats with historic can-can music; its volume, however, was too low during the big dance numbers, especially for a production that bills itself as “immersive.” Indeed, besides the fact that the play is set in an actual bar and the actors are quite close to the audience, not much of the production is actually immersive.
Overall, Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec represents both excellence in devised theater-making as well as some good escapist entertainment. Far too many pieces of devised theater fall into the trap of artistic preciousness, dragging on for too long and without much of a through line. Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec may not enlighten audiences, but it does provide enough meaningful moments and quality content to delight both interactive theatergoers and bar-hoppers alike.
Bated Breath Theatre Company’s production of Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec runs at Madame X (94 West Houston S., between LaGuardia Place and Thompson Street) through Aug. 7; performances are Wednesdays at 7 and 9 p.m. Tickets are $35 and are available at unmakinglautrecplay.com.