Reviewed by David Walters
At a lightly marked door off of Houston Street (part of the Madame X Bar), you’ll be met on the short flight of stairs by one of the ladies of your evening, checked in and given a playing card. The door then opens and you are ushered into the heavily loungy-decorated red interior, welcomed with a “Bonsoir” and beckoned to the bar for a libation. You have arrived. You have arrived at Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec, a play within an entertainment based on aspects of Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa’s life.
Most of us all know his work, but not the life behind it. We never really know what another person is really going through. Lautrec had a tough time of it. His parents were cousins and it’s presumed that act of coitus gifted him with a disease that gave him a full-size torso and diminutive legs. Ridiculed and scorned through most of his life, it was difficult, but he made the best of it. Made more than the best of it.
In his less-than-20-year career, Toulouse-Lautrec created:
- 737 canvased paintings
- 275 watercolors
- 363 prints and posters
- 5,084 drawings
- ceramic and stained-glass work
- and of course, an unknown number of lost works
What have I been doing with my life?
One drink comes with your entry. There are several especially concocted cocktails for the evening and the seating is around the perimeter as cast and audience occupy the same space.
The Moulin Rouge cabaret in late 1800s Paris was a place populated by people from the lower end of society. It opened in 1889 affording Lautrec only a few years (he died in 1901) to be in a place that he felt he belonged, “Nowhere else do I feel so much at home.” The play is a requiem for Lautrec utilizing vignettes of his life commented upon by the people in it. Focusing heavily on his time at The Moulin Rouge combining puppetry, dance, colorful songs, jokes, raunchy banter, syphilis, and alcohol it leads the audience to all offer a salute to Lautrec together at the end in a participatory drink.
His relationship with his mother, his rejection from his father (“I knew, papa, that you wouldn’t miss the death,” purportedly his last words), but mostly his struggle with who he was and what he could do, looking at life as it really is, in ways others had not, is the takeaway.
The music and sound effects by Nathan Leigh add immensely to the production, highlighting and accentuating key elements in each scene.
This could be a fun date night show with some meat to it that can bring the conversation in a different direction.
The Moulin Rouge is a place where Lautrec felt he belonged. Madame X bar and Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec just might be a place where you belong as well.
Unmaking Toulouse-Lautrec plays at Madame X, 94 West Houston Street, and has been extended through March 2020. The running time is 1 hour with no intermission. Tickets are available at unmakinglautrecplay.com.