“Can you see beauty in ugliness, or is it just playing in the dirt?”
(Lou Reed, “Starlight,” Songs for Drella)
The dissolute life and physical afflictions of French Post-Impressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) are the subjects of THE BODY LAUTREC. The original Fringe offering, co-written by Aaron Cromie (he stars in the title role, capturing the figure’s look and personality) and Mary Toumanen (she directs), is decidedly not for all ages and certainly not everyone’s cup of tea (Lautrec here fills his teacup with liquor). It is a shockingly hard-core depiction of the depravities in which the artist reveled and the debauched culture of late-19th-century Montmartre that he depicted. The show succeeds in setting a convincingly debased tone, and repels with its full-out crudities: Lautrec urinating on furniture then wiping his wet hands in his hair; fully nude and bottomless women exposing themselves and parading around the stage; a degrading conversation about the best nipples in Paris; among others.
Puppets (of Lautrec’s skeleton and a towering doctor, created by Cromie and operated by Kittson O’Neill) share the stage with live actors. Segments of medical procedures and voice-over analyses—some of the artist’s disabilities were congenital (presumed pycnodysostosis, dwarfism, and hypertrophied genitals, the result of his aristocratic family’s inbreeding), but the fatal ones (alcoholism and syphilis) were self-induced—are interwoven with scenes of brothels and cabarets (Kate Raines, Malgorzata Kasprzycka, and the riveting Christie Parker are the prostitutes/dance-hall girls, accompanied live by composer/pianist Heath Allen). The costumes (Maggie Baker), lighting (Maria Shaplin), sound (Rob Kaplowitz), set and props (Cromie) are historically evocative (in consultation with the Mütter Museum), and the imagery has the appropriately perverse tone of an absinthe-induced nightmare, but the brazen production generates more disgust than sympathy for this shamelessly “hedonistic soul in a broken body” and his distasteful coterie. [Caplan Studio Theatre, University of the Arts, 211 S. Broad St., 16th floor] September 12-21, 2014; fringearts.com/the-body-lautrec.
Read another Phindie review of THE BODY LAUTREC.