New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

New York City Theater

"Belle Epoque"
Mitzi Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center

Director/choreographer Martha Clark, as she is quick to point out, is a fourth-generation American Jew. How much this has to do with her creation of "Belle Epoque" is hard to say. Is it her Jewish soul which fuels this dark, moody and captivating piece? Does that make her sympathetic to the outcast Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, whom she chooses to make her centerpiece of the show? Does her fascination with a European era relate to her own historic antecedents?

Whatever murky depths Martha Clarke reaches into to create this piece, she comes up with a rich, fascinating work of art. Mood is her forte. She has always used imagery, choreography, sets and especially lighting to create a special ambience. Thus, once again, her "Belle Epoque," now on the Mitzi Newhouse Stage at Lincoln Center, captures the feel of an era.

It is turn-of-the-century Paris, and mood is everything. It is the world of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. In a dark, gritty bistro where tragedy lurks just beneath the surface gaiety, anything goes. Its denizens dance wildly, sing soulfully, offer love for sale, and struggle to survive. Decadence and the creative arts flourish side by side. In such a world, all kinds are tolerated-blacks, whites, straights, gays, freaks, clowns-a home where the dwarf Toulouse-Lautrec could comfortably exist. The artist, in fact, embodied both strains of the times-the freakishness and the artistic creativity.

Toulouse-Lautrec, who was only four feet, 11 inches in height, is played by Mark Povinelli, an excellent actor of equal height. And numerous other players and musicians comprise this fine ensemble, with Clarke firmly in command.

So much for mood, brilliantly evoked by Clarke, and for performances. But what this dance piece lacks is a story line. Charles Mee's book does not give it shape. Moreover, Mee's text is disappointingly pedestrian, as Toulouse-Lautrec recalls the history of his early years (the influence of his mother) and his adult life (the woman he has loved and lost). Of course Toulouse-Lautrec cavorts about, part of the inside group, flirts, loves, sketches, suffers, makes great paintings, and ultimately dies. But there is no story arc, no sense of a relentless forward movement.

No matter. It is what it is-Martha Clarke's remarkable vision of a memorable artist and a world gone by. And if one puts these disappointments aside and sinks into the mood, "Belle Epoque" is indeed an experience to be cherished.

-- Irene Backalenick
Dec. 18, 2004

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