by David Lally · March 30, 2015
Music Hall at 59E59 Theaters, is not, as the title suggests, about the music halls you might think – that form of variety entertainment popular in Britain from about 1850, which consisted of singing, dancing, comedy, acrobatics, and novelty acts – it’s a play, with songs, some sung a capella, some sung for brief snippets and some lip-synched. The music hall of this story is more a state of being.
TUTA Theatre Chicago is the company behind this production, written by Jean-Luc Lagarce and directed by Zeljko Djukic. It’s a very lyrical play about three fading performers (Jeffrey Binder, Michael Doonan and Darren Hill), who act, sing, and dance every night. It explores the vulnerable life of the theater artist, where the line between success and failure is often indistinguishable.
An Artiste, played by Binder, is on some kind of ungodly, depressing tour of the provinces with a couple of fellow performers, acolytes, chorus boys and foils (Doonan and Hill). It’s an insider’s piece about the life of the performer, the nightly grind of doing the same show night after night, town after town. It gets old. But to be released from this repetitive nightly grind also represents failure. The Artiste is a cynic, but also a realist. The arguments and comments one hears about the theatre are batted around amongst the performers – Why do we do this? How’s the box office? One mustn’t hope for much applause. Will anyone show up to applaud? This is what actors worry about night after night, wondering, as they are doing it for “the greater glory”, if that greater glory really exists.
Lagarce, who died at the age of 38 in 1995, was a prolific French playwright and his plays have been translated into several languages. Sometimes, though, things are lost in the translation. Though each individual segment is interesting, it lacks a cohesive whole. But that may be the point. It may be that the writer wants to leave more of an overall feeling about the artist’s life and present a patchwork of ideas that leave you with an impression, without worrying about tying the whole piece together. It didn’t bother me but if you are looking for something a bit more meaty, this isn’t it.
But what may be lacking on the page isn’t lacking on the stage. If you think of this as a sort of “Hedwig and the Cynical Inch” or a “Waiting for The Artiste”, you are in the right ballpark.
All three performers do a great job balancing the sometimes confusing material and the frequent shifts in tone from comedy to drama to tragedy. Again, though some of the individual scenes may feel like they go on a bit longer than desired, they do contribute to the overall tone of the show.
Binder does a great job of getting in the audience’s face and confronting them with “the artiste’s” ideas and he balances toughness with vulnerability quite effectively. Doonan and Hill provide great backup, and are equally good at balancing both the comedy and drama (with a little song and dance). Doonan, especially, can give a killer knowing look in some of his reactions to The Artiste. The performers, in this case, transcend the material they’ve been given.
The design team includes Natasha Djukic who did the simple curtained and mirrored set, Keith Parham who makes effective use of lighting the black box theatre, and great sound design by Christian Gero. The music direction by Wain Parham and movement direction by Aileen McGroddy is effective and subtle.
Though it might not be to everyone’s taste, Music Hall is enjoyable mostly for its performers and ideas, rather than any narrative whole.