Magical surprises at the FringeArts Festival often come in its smaller venues. Such was the case with The Body Lautrec, a wonderful puppet and physical creation by Mary Tuomanen and Aaron Cromie.
It joined highly imaginative theater in an intimate black box setting with well-crafted ensemble work and original music and lyrics from Heath Allen, peeling back the can-can allure of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Belle Époque to reveal — and revel in — its dark interiors of dissolution and decay. I was reminded of the remarks by David Lynch, in describing his art and film work last week at PAFA, who spoke of his fascination with uncovering the oozing, repellent underworlds of life and nature.
Lautrec, an iconic Postimpressionist painter, illustrator, and lithographer, had congenital bone disorders physically disabling him as a youth. As an adult, he suffered (as likely did many of his subjects) from alcoholism and syphilis, from which he died at age 36. His short life was intertwined with that of the medical world of his times. Tuomanen and Cromie mined Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum and its skeletal exhibits and histories of 19th-century medicine to create a theater piece in which the body is the subject of both art and medicine. The sexual and emotional energies generated by the live and puppet characters give life to Lautrec’s art as they concurrently reflect pain, decay, and inevitable early death.
The brilliant scenic and puppetry design of Cromie marries a Paris bordello to the aesthetic of the Mütter-like cabinet museum, also of the 19th century, where large drawers pop open to offer a selection of surgical instruments as well as an endless supply of booze and other props. A tall glass cabinet houses a full skeleton, which looks like a loan from Mütter (but in fact was a serendipitous sidewalk purchase), and which is later replaced by Cromie as Lautrec, painting a scene from the demimonde on the interior glass door. A puppet child skeleton crafted by Cromie is the Lautrec child of bone surgeries and artistic gifts.
Seeing through an artist’s eye
In memorable scenes, Kate Raines bares her tall, lean body both to the gaze of Lautrec the artist and later to a doctor (Kittson O’Neill), who, with a puppet head giving her surreal height and authority, subjects her to remedies for syphilis. These appeared to include bloodletting, mercury ointments, and cocaine. A fellow woman of the house, played by Christie Parker, performs a fiercely defiant dance to syphilis, a dance both to life and death. And in a pivotal scene of Lautrec drawing a lesbian couple reclining on a sofa, as our eyes shift in shadowy lighting (by Maria Shaplin) back and forth between Lautrec and the couple (Raines and Malgorzata Kasprzycka), we are able to get inside Lautrec’s head and artistic sensibility to capture the moment when he sets to active drawing, after the women exhaust their posing and find an intimate attachment and solitude. Cromie's portrayal of an artist of insatiable curiosity and failing body is effective and at times endearingly clownish.
Allen’s music and lyrics add a sweet, off-beat feeling with music in 5/8 time that registered something of Lautrec’s limp, but more broadly the strangeness of this demimonde. The harmonics had the feel of Erik Satie, but a Satie of the bordello, and songs like “Asshole,” sung and flung by the prostitutes to select gentlemen of the audience, had the feel of a “Pirate Jenny” and a similar world of Weill-Brecht.
It is a commonplace that art alters the way we look at life. But it also alters the way we look at art. After seeing The Body Lautrec, we may never look at a painting by Lautrec in the same way again.