A bare stage. There’s only a curtain, a stool, a pair of high-heeled shoes, and a trunk. But here three actors create a magical environment, an environment of beauty and bleakness about their fading careers as cabaret performers: The Artiste (gracefully played by Jeffrey Binder) and two Boys, her accompanists and dancers, played by Michael Doonan as First Boy and Darren Hill as Second Boy. (The word Boy is used in French, designating a supporting dancer or singer in a music hall routine.)
Tuta Theatre Chicago is staging Jean-Luc Lagarce’s “Music Hall” at the Den Theatre through March 8. Then it goes to New York, where it will be mounted at 59E59, a slightly-off-Broadway house, from March 25 through April 12. Director Zeljko Djukic has created a charming, touching 80-minute show.
The play is performed in a small, ~50-seat space. The audience is seated at the front and side of a small stage, marked by a wooden dance floor and a ceiling-high curtain at the rear. The two Boys come on, make adjustments to the curtain and discuss how the Artiste always begins: “it was always she who decided when to begin —when the show would go up, she’d walk straight down towards the audience and she’d sit, always in the self-same manner, slow and unconcerned.”
Now The Artiste arrives, simply dressed in black, to describe the hardships of traveling, by air, boat or (alas) by foot. The amenities at the houses where they perform have declined along with the mode of transportation. All they ask for are a door upstage center and something on which to play music…and a stool. Often they had to argue the need for a stool. The Artiste tells us about the stool.
“Oh, I’ve seen my share of stools! Big ones, small ones, ‘three-legged’, ‘four-legged’ but the legs not all the same height, and stools with a back to them, and that’s not a stool at all, I’d say to them, that is not a stool, and they’d snigger, they would, they’d say ‘What difference does it make?’ When you’ve been through hell, you don’t fear the devil, and a chair, — because frankly we should call those things, those damned things by their name, by their damned name! And a chair, they’d tell me, a chair is better than a stool. Try to make them understand!”
The Artiste eventually decides to buy a stool, but then the act is beset by complaints about fire regulations and assurances that their stool will not “burst into flames. Is it inflammable? or flammable? I never know which.”
As they prepare to perform the cabaret act, the Boys don color-coordinated trouser-vest costumes, and the Artiste transforms himself into a female performer. A long skirt, the high-heeled shoes, feminine blouse, sparkly earrings, a long scarf or two, eventually makeup. But the Artiste never dons a wig. The actor’s closely cropped hair remains, as if to remind us that he or she really is engaging in deception. (In most prior productions, this role has been performed by a woman.)
The Artiste and the Boys lament the fact that there are “fewer and fewer enchanted audience members” and a resulting decline in the takings, which they divide as their income. “Sometimes, they’re not even there, they don’t come, of no interest to them and really don’t see why— that’s how they put it —really don’t see why they should put themselves out, not there, totally absent, and we, the three of us and the stool, with the dress on my back and intensive makeup on my face, there, waiting….”
Dramaturg Sharon Ammen’s notes on the play comment: “Theatre is a great art of illusion. We come together and sit in the dark to watch others perform a virtual history. We can see the actor behind the character—but we agree to believe she is the character.” And indeed, we believe Jeffrey Binder is The Artiste and the Boys, both charming and funny in their roles, are cabaret singers and dancers.
link to the play notes cited above — http://www.tutato.com/production/music-hall
The work of Lagarce, who died at age 31 in 1988 after contracting AIDS, is widely produced in France and Europe, but little known in the US. The “Music Hall” script, translated by Joseph Long, includes brief song refrains, including this lyric from a song by Josephine Baker, which we hear throughout the performance.
“Don’t try to tell me that you love me
Just think of me from time to time… 11”
Wain Parham’s music direction and Christian Gero’s sound design create a moving musical rhythm to the performance. Josh Schmidt was music consultant. Natasha Djukic designed costumes and set and Keith Parham is responsible for lighting.
This review was previously posted on gapersblock.com/ac/.