This French import takes a poetic stroll into the world of traveling music hall performers.
Photos by Anthony La Penna
Three men on one stage together imagine a performance. The performance of an artiste, in a music hall in some tiny middle-of-nowhere town where the theaters are small and the audiences are smaller. They are surrounded by the traces of a theater being set up--a curtain, a ladder, a ballet barre and mirrors.
But before long, the act of describing the beloved singer's act becomes the act itself, and the most verbose man becomes the Artiste, skirt, feather boa and all. This is the world of Jean-Luc Lagarce's Music Hall, a TUTA Theatre Chicago production now taking place at 59E59. This translated French play is more poetry than performance, its extended monologues and repeated refrains creating a hypnotic text that slowly submerges you in its shabby, backwater setting.
So what exactly is the Artiste, then? She is played by a man and begins the performance in men's clothing, yet once transformed with costumes and makeup performs the feminine role without a trace of irony. This indeterminacy extends to the location as well—any small town in America—and the era in which it takes place, its collision of musical styles and nostalgic atmosphere overwhelming all.
Even the characters are more types than they are individuals. While the Artiste announces herself to be eternal, the charming young First Boy (Michael Doonan) and more worldly wise Second Boy (Darren Hill) freely admit that their positions are often in flux, each of them coming into the role as replacements for men who simply walked away and are likely to do the same someday themselves. Meanwhile, the eccentric and over-the-top Artiste (Jeffrey Binder) is so invested in her own performed personality that we are unable to see much of the woman (or man) behind the mask at all.
What does come through as genuine and specific, however, is the love of theater itself exhibited by all three performers. The men share their Artiste's pride in finishing every performance, no matter what, while frequent anecdotes about the troubles of ill-equipped tiny stages and painstaking fire safety regulations will ring true to anyone who has ever worked in the arts. And though the gaudy backdrop and men's awkward, odd costumes may not say much for the quality of that theater, what matters to them is the strength to step out on stage and keep going.
The most intriguing segment of the show, meanwhile, concerns the Artiste's husband, the first First Boy, and her lover, the first Second Boy, and why they are no longer with the show. Did her husband leave her? Was he murdered so she could be with her other boy? That sense of mystery and excitement electrifies the production, and more moments like that could have moved Music Hall out of the realm of general reminiscence and into a more unique story.
Also entertaining, or uncomfortable depending on your position, is the Artiste's extensive interaction with the audience throughout the show. Members of the first row beware, for you will be grabbed, hugged, interrogated or at least stared at intensely. This singer has a primal need to make a connection with her audience, and she will stop at nothing to do so.
So what sort of audience is Music Hall right for? Those nostalgic for the old days of vaudeville and cabaret singers, certainly. And those who admire a poetic turn of phrase more than they do strict realism. An irreverence for traditional gender performance certainly helps as well. Music Hall is the art of a lost era, returning to the present day to remind us of its once and enduring glory.
Music Hall plays at 59E59 through April 12.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.