Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The Body Lautrec
Also see Tim's review of Nightmares in Neverland
The Body Lautrec, the newest theatre work from the infinitely inventive Aaron Cromie and Mary Tuomanen, examines the life of the post-Impressionist painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in detail sometimes in excruciating detail. It recreates the bars and brothels of late 19th century Paris and shows the internal and external pressures that brought down one of the world's greatest artists. But be warned: even though it's an eye-popping piece filled with lovely performances, exquisite art direction and beautiful women, The Body Lautrec can sometimes be an ugly show.
As the audience files into the theatre, Toulouse-Lautrec (Cromie) is lying face down on the floor, apparently in a drunken stupor. Once he rouses himself, he has to struggle to get to his feet; for Toulouse-Lautrec, life was always a struggle. He was saddled with a congenital bone ailment that made every step painful, but it was self-induced problems alcoholism and syphilis that led to his death at age 36. In The Body Lautrec, the artist is in his element a drink is always nearby, and a prostitute is handy for him to ogle or to capture on canvas. The sets and props (designed by Cromie) give the sense that Toulouse-Lautrec's life is always on exhibition a glass-enclosed case holds a skeleton that reminds us of the artist's fragility, and a chest of drawers stands center stage, a surprise inside every drawer. Atop the chest is a puppet theatre, where Cromie's most charming creation, a miniature skeleton that moves with all the grace that Toulouse-Lautrec lacks. (The puppetry dazzles here, as it does in so many of Cromie's works; the actors double as puppeteers.) There's a piano where Heath Allen sits and plays his original music, which blends music hall with dissonance to connote the show's off-kilter sensibility.
Under Tuomanen's direction, The Body Lautrec doesn't focus on any internal turmoil Toulouse-Lautrec may have felt; instead it shows him indulging and creating, indulging and creating. I found much of it fascinating, but it can be tough going at times. There's one section that's sure to polarize audiences: a scene in which a dead, naked prostitute (played by the exceedingly brave Kate Raines) is carved up in an autopsy. It's all done by misdirection, of course Raines is never harmed, she merely has stage blood smeared on her yet two women in my row found it so upsetting that they put their heads in their hands and covered their eyes. Later, when a doctor gives a lecture on the side effects of syphilis, I saw a man in the same row averting his eyes in the same way. Despite all the beauty that Toulouse-Lautrec portrayed, this show about him can be awfully hard to watch at times.
(Speaking of hard to watch, the sightlines at the Caplan Studio Theatre are terrible. Tuomanen compounds the problem by staging most of her scenes just inches away from the front row; my view from the third row was often blocked by heads craning to see the action.)
Raines' hazy performance as the most jaded and dissolute of the streetwalkers is a highlight of The Body Lautrec. There's also excellent work from Christie Parker and Malgorzata Kasprzycka, and by Kittson O'Neill, who spends much of her time onstage under a tall papier-mâché mask. Maria Shaplin's evocative lighting and Rob Kaplowitz's unnerving sound design take us further into the artist's head.
I found Cromie and Tuomanen's offbeat and resourceful take on Toulouse-Lautrec's life powerful enough to overcome most of the disturbing moments. Some will not. But kudos to these theatre artisans who, like the man they celebrate, find beauty in sadness.
The Body Lautrec runs through September 21, 2014, and is presented as part of the 2014 Fringe Festival at the Caplan Studio Theatre, University of the Arts, 211 South Broad Street, 16th Floor, Philadelphia. Tickets are available at www.FringeArts.com.