94 West Houston St. between LaGuardia Pl. & Thompson St.
Wednesday, Friday, Saturday through March 6, $40 - $55 (includes one beverage)
After witnessing the extravagant calamity that is Moulin Rouge! The Musical! on Broadway, I was hoping for a more poignant and intimate experience out of Bated Breath’s Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec, which trumpets itself as an “immersive, environmental” show, extended five times at the tiny Madame X lounge on West Houston St. Despite some dandy touches, however, it also left me cold and detached, scratching my head over what could have been.
Conceived and directed by Bated Breath artistic director Mara Lieberman, Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec takes place in a small, cozy space, dark and plush red, where the audience sits on couches and chairs that surround the action. The actors enter and exit from the back room behind the bar and the front main entrance, which is next to a small balcony. (If you have to go to the bathroom during the show, you are sure to step in the way.) Born in the mid-Pyrenees in 1864, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec became a painter and a regular at the seductive Parisian cabaret known as the Moulin Rouge. The play begins with the death of Lautrec (Daniel George), announced by his father, Alphonse (CJ DiOrio), who calls him “the kindest soul you could ever have met.” Cabaret performer Yves Guilbert (Glori Dei Filippone) adds, “Tiny painter,” can-can star Jane Avril (Kat Christensen) “Stiff and hobbled,” fellow painter Suzanne Valadon (Mia Aguirre) “French aristocrat,” and Yves again “Star of Paris.” The story then weaves back and forth between Toulouse-Lautrec’s relationship with his mother, Adele (production designer Derya Celikkol), and his friendship with club owner Aristide Bruant (DiOrio) and the Moulin Rouge performers. Although they describe him as a “puppet” and a “little monster,” they appreciate his talent and pose for him (among other things, leading to a doctor closely examining him and the women).
Even at only sixty minutes, Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec is repetitive and features several superfluous scenes, including a performance of “Ah la Salope!,” the chorus of which includes the line “Go and wash your ass,” and an inexplicable digression into an auction where the value of some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings are listed from recent, twenty-first-century sales, completely taking us out of the period narrative. (Bated Breath seems to have a thing for auctions; its 2017 Beneath the Gavel was set in the contemporary art world and invited the audience to bid on works.) Just because a setting is intimate and the actors make a lot of direct eye contact does not make a show immersive; Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec feels oddly distant though you can reach out and touch the actors.
However, you really shouldn’t; at the bar before the show, a patron ran her hand along one of the female performers’ stockinged leg, which was stretched out alluringly against the bar, and the bouncer looked none-too-pleased. That same woman and her partner also took full advantage of the policy that nonflash photography and video is encouraged during the show; they sometimes filmed entire scenes, which was extremely distracting, especially because no one else was doing it. The cast is solid, the dancing exciting in such close quarters, and Gail Fresia’s costumes are fun, but you don’t learn anything about Toulouse-Lautrec that you didn’t already know, and you don’t feel like you’re in the Moulin Rouge; you are quite well aware that you are an audience member watching a show about it. A scene in which Suzanne poses for the artist is cleverly staged, and the VD exams are very funny, but too much of Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec seems unmade itself.