If you want to talk about the ambivalence of desire, it’s easier to do in French. Take the odd allure of the jolie laide (“beautiful-ugly”), people who aren’t conventionally attractive but are all the more fetching for not being so; more famously, there’s la petite mort (“the little death”), which refers to the brief loss of selfhood during orgasm that foreshadows our ultimate obliteration in death.
Little death in the demimonde is the subject of Belle Epoque, Martha Clarke’s new piece of movement theater, with text by Charles Mee. This portrait of an artist in his own milieu sketches the life and death of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901), whose posters of dance hall girls, cabaret stars, and prostitutes delineated the frenzied, febrile spirit of the late 19th century—modern Europe’s last rave before World War I brought it all crashing down. On Robert Israel’s simple café of a set, Lautrec (Mark Povinelli) and his muses fall in and out of love—and alcoholic stupors—while a wry four-piece combo in the corner provides a soundtrack to their dissipated lives.
Belle Epoque‘s intermittent pleasures spring from extremity, not elegance, like the life of Lautrec himself. Afflicted with a form of dwarfism and a cleft palate, and dependent on a cane for mobility, he was physically fated to be an outsider of sorts. An absinthe addict who contracted syphilis before the age of 20, he died of organic brain damage at 36 after years of voracious living.
This singular artist’s disproportionate body evokes a curiously universal human experience. As Clarke remarked in a Lincoln Center Theater Review interview, “Everybody’s got some part of their life that’s Lautrecian. Some part of us that hasn’t grown properly . . . something about rejection, something about need.” The production is most successful when Clarke locates a visual language for that insight: There’s a moment early on when Lautrec is casually dumped off a café chair by the dancer Valentin (the sublime Rob Besserer), appropriately nicknamed “The Boneless.” Valentin’s very existence—his height, grace, and infinite limbs—is a corporeal taunt to Lautrec, the universe’s capacity for harmonious design reminding its less exemplary inhabitants of their shortcomings. So too Lautrec’s hopeless, sadistic love for Suzanne (Vivienne Benesch, in an anemic performance) finds its most cogent expression not through their spoken exchanges, but rather in his desperate climb up her lithe, arching form.
But too much of the 80-minute evening feels forced in its picture of louche Parisian gaiety, and general in its depiction of sexuality. Despite the talents of the dancers, their movements can’t shake us free of our cancanned vision of Lautrec’s posters. Mee’s dialogue acknowledges the weirdness and rage that can underlie longing, yet doesn’t seem genuinely connected to this specific world. “I like to see a woman when she’s not expecting to be seen,” Lautrec tells us, but with the rare exception, his women remain silhouettes, their sexuality and its commodification an idea rather than a reality fleshed out convincingly onstage.
Given Belle Epoque‘s dark vision, it’s no wonder that the sequence depicting Lautrec’s spiral toward his untimely demise is more compelling, erotic, and revelatory than any of the love scenes. Clarke ultimately seems more interested in choreographing a dance of death than filling in the outlines of Lautrec’s immortal subjects.
Along with Christopher Akerlind’s breathtaking lighting design, a few performers stand out, including Ruth Maleczech, whose dry-witted intelligence endows the most dubious speeches with credibility; and Joyce Castle, singing a few tart cabaret numbers translated by Michael Feingold. These women’s ability to lend a light touch to their characters’ awareness of their limited fates comes closer than anything else in Belle Epoque to bringing Lautrec’s portraits into exhaustedly vivid, vulnerably enduring relief.