“Moulin Rouge” on Broadway has several things in common with Bated Breath Theater Company’s low-budget show about the same people, place and period, especially in my reaction to them both. As with “Moulin Rouge,” I found “Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec” thrilling from the moment I entered the West Houston bar where it takes place…until a few minutes after it began. That’s because the environment on the second floor lounge of the Madame X bar is spot-on in look and feel – all 19th-century bordello red, with Can-Can girls in bulging bodices and fishnet stockings performing seductive calisthenics with a shirtless Can-Can boy, as we get our glass of wine from the bar, and take our seats on the velvet couches or mismatched chairs. The walls are covered with some of the artist’s most famous posters and drawings.
“Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec” is a vivid example of site-specific theater, which is the best thing about it. But it’s a stretch to call it immersive, as Bated Breath does. The show offers just two of the six elements I’ve identified as present in the best immersive theater. It’s certainly intimate – the cramped playing areas are never more than a few feet away from the audience, which the night I saw it was comprised of just a dozen theatergoers. But we more or less passively watch the hour-long show as it unfolds in front of (and around) us.
Bated Breath also calls its show devised theater, which means that, although conceived and directed by its artistic director Mara Lieberman, the entire company helped put it together. The result is a show about the life and times of French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that is at best inventive, at worst amateurish, and overall a mishmash.
There is an occasional stab at documentary biography, with Henri’s muse Jane Avril (Kat Christensen) reading letters between Henri and his mother Adele, as well as dips into exposition; at one point, the cast takes turns explaining his place in art history:
“He was the first person to elevate advertising to fine art.
“Without Henri, there would be no Andy Warhol.”
“No Roy Lichtenstein.”
“Even young Picasso started out imitating Toulouse-Lautrec.”
More often, there are interludes that are meant to be evocative, sometimes using the kind of wordless dance movement that we associate with immersive paragons like “Sleep No More” and “Then She Fell” (It can be no coincidence that Tara O’Con, who was the original Alice in “Then She Fell,” is listed in the Unmaking credits as “choreographic consultant.”)
Some of the characters feel straight out of “Moulin Rouge,” most notably Aristide Bruant, the lively and crude master of ceremonies (portrayed with verve by Luke Couzens, who also plays Henri’s father.) The cast of half a dozen performers is uneven, but game. Daniel George makes a suitable Henri, and would surely stand out if he were given more opportunity to act. I’ll admit to longing for some scenes that were longer, clearer and more conventional — which is to say, where the characters had dialogue and maybe even discernible objectives. The show seems to reflect the belief of the self-consciously avant-garde that straightforward storytelling is hopelessly bourgeois
Still, the haphazard, do-it-yourself feel of “Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec” offers an often refreshing contrast to Broadway’s slickly professional “Moulin Rouge,” which is literally by the numbers.
Bated Breath’s willingness to experiment makes for some memorable moments. Henri pokes at a blank canvas as if painting it, the canvas is lifted, and we see the can-can lady he was presumably painting, mimicking the pose of one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s well-known paintings (The Spanish Dancer, Seated Dancer in Pink Tights, etc.), then other members of the cast hold up bidding paddles as if at an auction, and one of them calls out the dollar figure in the millions that the painting is now worth.
Speaking of inflated prices, it is worth noting that ticket prices for “Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec” are just $35, compared to the Broadway show’s official range from $99 (good luck in getting those) to “$299+”
“Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec” running at Madame X on Friday, September 27 at 7pm & 8:30pm and after that every Wednesday at 7pm & 9pm through January 8, 2020. Tickets are $35. Running time is one hour.
Directed and conceived by Mira Lieberman
Devised by Bated Breath Theater Company
Original Music by Nathan Leigh
Costume design by Gail Fresia
Scenic painting by Daniel Nischan
“Choreographic consultant” Tara O’Con
Cast: Daniel George as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Kat Christensen as Jane Avril, Derya Celikkol as Maman Adele and others, Luke Couzens as Papa Alphonse and Aristide, Mia Aguirre as Suzanne and others, Glori Dei Filippone