Bated Breath’s TOULOUSE-LAUTREC PROJECT is perhaps too loose
The Toulouse-Lautrec Project
Created by Bated Breath Theatre Company
at The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
through November 3
After a brief summer residency uptown at cutting-edge Real Art Ways, Bated Breath Theatre Company moves downtown to the “grand dame” of the Hartford visual arts scene, The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. Having created Interludes, a series of short vignettes inspired by the installations at R.A.W., this site-specific theatre troupe now brings their talents to bear on Toulouse-Lautrec, one of the artists featured in America’s oldest public art museum’s current exhibition, “Medieval to Monet: French Paintings in the Wadsworth Atheneum.”
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa’s life seems ideally suited to the theatre as his Post-Impressionist art is ideal for a museum. The inbred child of two first cousins, Toulouse-Lautrec was plagued with a diminutive stature and poor health. Juxtaposed with his frailties was his immense talent as a visual artist and his out-sized appetites. Immersed in the Bohemian life of Montmartre, the artist was drawn to the sexualized and seedy atmosphere of the infamous Moulin Rouge. His indulgences eventually got the better of him when he died too young at the age of 36 due to complications from alcoholism and, it is believed, syphilis contracted from a prostitute.
Performed in the stately lobby of the Goodwin Building (one of the five interconnected buildings that comprise The Wadsworth) and surrounded by a colorful mural by Sol LeWitt, it would seem one would be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate site for a play about an artist. As with Interludes, the site provides some challenges for this site-specific piece.
Although born into an aristocratic family, Toulouse-Lautrec found his milieu in the free-wheeling cafes of late 19th century Paris. The formality of the playing space robs his story of some of the grit and sexiness inherent in the tawdry studios, brothels and pleasure domes that he frequented. Further, the number of audience members jammed into the too-small space with a party/DJ happening just feet away from the playing space made for some difficult sight-lines and, at times, impossible-to-hear dialogue.
Director Mara Lieberman and her talented cast do their best to maximize the playing space with actors using the full depth and “wings” of the Goodwin Lobby, as well as the swooping staircases and balcony that the hall provides. As often occurs with collaborative and organically-created theatre pieces, there are a few too many things thrown at the wall. A mask, can-can dancers, video projections of biographical material and photos, poster art, amplified actors, unamplified actors, somewhat traditional storytelling and added abstract theatre tropes all jostle together somewhat uncomfortably.
Toulouse-Lautrec, as portrayed by Greg Ludovici, is smartly introduced as seeing the world through a frame. Later, the women in his life – presumably Jane Avril, La Goulue, and other nightclub dancers/prostitutes – are seen as characters through his frames that are eventually auctioned off. This is a clever and affecting touch.
These scenes compete with moments of actors running around the space with umbrellas, something that seems less necessary to the narrative and more an acting exercise used to pad the proceedings (which, at less than a half-hour in duration, seems unnecessary).
With no program distributed, it is a little difficult to appropriately acknowledge the performances, which are universally fine. Ludovici makes a sweet and facile Toulouse-Lautrec. One assumes that an expanded and better articulated play would allow the actor to find more of the darker shades inherent in a less-than-five-foot man who swilled absinthe with prostitutes. As it stands, Ludovici’s performance is miles ahead of John Leguizamo’s interpretation of the artist as a lisping dwarf in Moulin Rouge.
Michael Nowicki plays multiple roles including Aristide Bruant (a nightclub chansoneur immortalized in Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster art), the artist’s father/2nd cousin, and various critics. Nowicki’s booming voice and commanding presence cut through the clutter of the piece. Bated Breath regulars Debra Walsh and Missy Burmeister both tackle the role of muses and detractors with conviction.