January 11, 2020
In their production, Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec, Bated Breath Theatre Company shares
the dark story of the life of famed painter and poster maker Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Set in
Paris in the late 1800’s, the interactive play follows along with Henri’s tragedies from
aristocracy and great talent to alcoholism and homelessness.
“Bonjour chérie”! An actor giggles and waves patrons into the smoky, red lounge.
Dressed in fishnet tights, bustiers, and colorful tutus the actors stretch, mingle, and saunter
around the intimate setting mimicking a French salon. After getting a drink at the bar, patrons fill
the red velvet couches and barstools as period music plays overhead. Without any prior warning,
Toulouse-Lautrec stumbles into the space, trips onto a couch, and falls asleep. The girls laugh “Henri you’re
drunk”, they giggle. He shouts back, “You should be drunk!” as he slumps back down onto the
This cues the beginning of the work as the rest of the cast enter into the small space, and
begin to chronicle Toulouse-Lautrec's life in the form of a eulogy at his funeral. They describe how they met
Toulouse-Lautrec, their relationship to him, and some highlights of his life. However, in many instances this
form of story telling feels jumpy, inconclusive, and oddly biographical.
The audience learns that
Toulouse-Lautrec's father and mother were first cousins, which is why he was born with a congenial birth
defect. Weakness in his bones caused both legs to break and never heal properly inhibiting his
movement for life. His disability forced him to be a social outcast.
Toulouse-Lautrec felt ashamed and
depressed which led to alcoholism. His lack of mobility also led to his obsession with the human
body- which is why the play places him most often at the infamous French brothels studying and
sketching the women.
When Toulouse-Lautrec's fascination with the dirty and grotesque began to become
well known, he was commissioned by the Moulin Rouge for illustrations and posters. The
audience is told that today much of his work sells for multimillion dollars.
All this to say, this is the extent of the plot-line of the play. With brief interjections on his
relationship with his mother and some women at the brothel, the plot feels under developed and
unfinished. The bulk of the story is revealed to the audience by the actors as fact, instead of
watching it play out in real time.
In many instances, the transitions between sections of
information are filled with awkward dance breaks and choppy sing song story telling. Though
the interaction with the audience was enjoyable, and the atmosphere made for the perfect
collaboration, it felt as though the reliance on this environment compromised the need for the
play to fully develop, leaving the audience members feeling somewhat confused.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Mia Silvestri