On Broadway: One-Person Shows

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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the December 22, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New York Review: ‘Belle Epoque’

American choreographer/director Martha Clarke’s visually arresting style has impressively served the grotesqueries of author Franz Kafka (“The Hunger Artist”), the whimsical world of painter Hieronymus Bosch (“The Garden of Earthly Delights”), and the decadence of Austrian Expressionist painters Gustaf Klimpt and Egon Schiele (in the recently revived “Vienna: Lusthaus”).

At her best when giving daringly expressionistic form and design to the artist’s repressed desires and embedded anxieties, Clarke is, unfortunately, not at her best with “Belle Epoque,” the era-evoking theater piece populated by the absinthe-intoxicated Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the prostitutes, dancers, and denizens of the Moulin Rouge. In this often over-reaching piece, Clarke’s efforts to reveal the famously conflicted yet fiercely impassioned French poster painter is muddled by the Charles L. Lee’s over ripe text.

“Belle Epoque” is, however, marked by its dream-like imagery as Clarke’s company weaves eccentrically and seductively through the dusky cafe setting, stunningly lighted by Christopher Akerlind. If the atmosphere is charged with a pervasive eroticism, it is also seen as purposefully unkind to the reckless and abandoned souls it envelops. Characters have a tendency to speak in a pandering crassly abstracted style. Rarely does anyone sound as if conversation or communication is the point. In short, the words short-circuit the mood and the spell of Clarke’s imagery. Nor does the pretentious text offer any insights into either Lautrec or the others who drift through his world.

Complying with the prerequisite lack of stature, Mark Povinella’s compelling presence propels Lautrec’s impulsive nature, and he appears exactly as the lonely artist is consumed by his lust for the female body. At the point in his life that we meet him, he is already dying of syphilis. Although set within the confines of the cafe, the narrative employs flashbacks and memories to trace Lautrec’s intense bond with his mother, Madame Adele, la comtess de Toulouse-Lautrec (Honora Fergusson), his one true love affair with the beautiful Suzanne (Vivienne Benesch), and his own sad tendency to self-mockery and debauchery. These scenes, however, are merely fragments splattered across Clarke’s richer canvas.

The contrast between the dwarfish Lautrec, the voluptuous women, and the gaunt tall-leaning sharp-featured male figure known famously as “The Boneless” (Robert Besserer) from the posters is striking. And striking is the word for costumer Jane Greenwood’s fin-de-siecle fashions. Would that Lee’s words could have shed more light on these characters as well as make Lautrec seem more than just an annoying, impetuous little man who seems to be always in the way. Not that anyone could get in the way of either the fleshy Rebecca Wender when she doing her belly dance, or the Cuban Chocolat (Tome Cousin) when he up to his high and hot stepping.

Large smoke-stained mirrors flank designer Robert Israel’s atmospheric cafe setting. A small area for the on-stage band, which includes a piano, tuba, French horn, bandoneon, and violin, does not impose on the expanse of parquet that allows the performers plenty of space to engage in smoldering alliances and hair-pulling confrontations, as well as pick up their heels to the exuberant strains of the gallop and cancan, however eccentrically they are recreated by the imaginative Clarke.

The romantic music of Bizet, Faure, Satie is ready to sweeten the air regularly salted by a variety of naughty songs, sung with not quite enough insinuation by Joyce Castle as Yvette, the house Chanteuse. But it is the inimitable Ruth Maleczech, as the famed entertainer La Goulue, who gets us to prick up our ears singing a song with lyrics that are nothing but a series of euphemisms for the vagina — eat your heart out Eve Ensler.

— Simon Saltzman

Belle Epoque, through Sunday, January 2, Lincoln Center-Mitzi Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65th Street. 212-239-6277.

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On Broadway: One-Person Shows

No one doubts that one-person shows are cheaper to produce and offer a potentially faster return for the investor. Another plus is that talented stand-alones don’t have to wait for their agent’s call to audition for someone else’s show. But are these productions just a vanity showcase or a shrine for adoring disciples disguised as theater? The audience, of course, will be the final judge. Five shows currently running on Broadway qualify in this category, including Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays,” which is in fact close to being a real play and will be reviewed as such in another column. Each one of four shows below offers a little something different to adults with a liberal mindset.

“Dame Edna.” There is only one dame on this planet who holds court with the kind of self-anointed hubris and ego-driven temerity that commands the respect and adulation of both royalty and commoners. She is known as a domestic Australian widow cum international doyenne and arbiter of good taste, the one and only Dame Edna Everage — an otherwise simple yet gorgeously gowned woman eager to share her worldly and intimate observations.

As personified by her audacious and talented creator, Barry Humphries, Dame Edna is “back with a vengeance” to dispense, to those who come within range, more of her pearls of priceless putdowns. Dame Edna may evoke glitz and glamour in her spectacular entrance, descending from the rafters sitting atop a pair of glittering eyeglass frames, but her feet are soon planted solidly on the ground for a heart-to-heart talk to her “possums.”

Lilac-wigged (think Mrs. Slokum in “Are You Being Served”) Edna’s return to Broadway offers virtually more of the same kind of tough love advice, well-meaning insults, and heart-warming healing that she offered in her Tony-winning 1999 success, “Dame Edna: The Royal Tour.” This new show starts off winningly with — as seems to be de rigueur for solo performers post-Election Day — the obligatory Bush-basted monologue. However, here it is offered in the gently disparaging and magnanimously truthful way that is uniquely Edna’s. Edna also brings back more of her “sharing” about her own family — the late invalid husband, the artistic son (who “became a homeopath”), and the disappointing daughter. Then she is on to the barbed banter with randomly-selected audience members. They will also be unwittingly drawn into a participatory, slightly labored farce in the second half of the show.

Naturally every show is a little different but all simmer with Edna’s quick-witted delivery and gift for improvisation, including genuine marriage counseling, accurate psychic readings, and, of course, fashion tips. As Edna shares the stage with pianist Wayne Barker and four backup dancers, “The Gorgeous Ednaettes” (Teri Digianfelice and Michelle Pampena) and the “Equally Gorgeous TestEdnarones” (Randy Aaron and Gerrard Carter), with whom she sings and cavorts without apology, the show cannot be honestly called a one-person show. But, as there is no possibility of a replacement for the one and comely Dame Edna, we’ll bend the rules. Be ready to reach out and grab one of the gladioli that this Dame flings with great abandon into the audience at the finale.

“Whoopi.” It has been 20 years since New York native Whoopi Goldberg made her acclaimed Broadway debut at the Lyceum Theater. Since then, Goldberg has gone Hollywood, enjoying an amazing and well-earned career in films and television, and as the star of a talk show and sitcom.

The versatile performer is back at the Lyceum to celebrate and share with us much of what she has come to be and is still becoming — one of the funniest women in the world. Her comedic scope, notwithstanding the return of her beloved characters, has widened to include astute political observations, and her delivery reverberates with an impassioned edge.

For the first 20 minutes, Goldberg’s variations on the state of the nation are as blissfully irreverent as they are blisteringly funny. Starting off like a house afire Goldberg brings back Fontaine, the male, drug-saturated, crude-speaking junkie to blast away at the Bush administration: “We had a president who lied about getting some and we impeached him. Then we got a president who lied about all kinds of shit. And people are dying. And we put him back. And I thought, ‘I need more drugs.’”

If the first part of the show allows Goldberg to speak out, through Fontaine’s hazy ranting, on everything from Osama to Condoleezza and the ultra conservatives’ fear of gay marriage, the show progresses without much structure (no director is credited). A new character, Lurlene, a middle-aged Southern woman, who discourses on her recent hot flashes, memories of sanitary napkins, and her first trip to a waxing salon, overstays her welcome but gets laughs. Classic characters like the Valley Girl who gets pregnant; the physically disabled, speech impaired woman who finds love; and the six-year-old girl who figures out how to have long blond tresses remain poignant indeed.

“Laugh Whore.” Mario Cantone is not the most subtle of comedians. He is, in fact, the most frenetic, over-the-top garrulously gay raconteur on the boards. Perhaps most widely known for his role as the strident wedding planner on the HBO series “Sex and the City,” and a few carefully harnessed roles in plays, Cantone’s two-hour rant plus a couple of songs will probably please his following. But it will likely leave the uninitiated wondering what to make of his almost recklessly indulgent, relentlessly vulgar showcase, mainly comprised of celebrity mimicking and putdowns.

If Cantone also joins the chorus venting their anger with the current administration, his spin on the color alerts for terrorism is truly funny, as is his irreverent view of Julia Childs in the kitchen, after her stroke. If you are receptive to stinging impersonations of Katherine Hepburn, Liza Minnelli, Shelley Winters, Faye Dunaway, and Cher, among others, you might also be ready for his more personal confessions and admissions about himself and his Italian-American family. Unlike the hundreds in the audience who laughed and seemed to be eating it all up, I was content with contemplating my holiday shopping list.

“The Good Body.” Women’s activist, lecturer, and performer Eve Ensler hit the big time with her international hit, “The Vagina Monologues,” in which different women shared their most intimate feelings about that most specific part of their body but in general were a chorus of voices in praise of their sexual selves. In “The Good Body,” Ensler’s sights are a bit loftier and sadder as she lectures (think Sunday night at the Y) on the harm women are doing to themselves in attempting to achieve a more perfect body.

Unlike her previous unadorned show, “The Good Body” is enhanced with slides, props, and costume changes, all of which allow Ensler to portray various women who vent their pent-up feelings about the different parts of their body that they hate and have been encouraged by our culture to hide, butcher or remove.

“Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance,” through March 13, although an extension is anticipated), Music Box Theater, 239 West 45th Street. 212-239- 6200.

“Whoopi: The 20th Anniversary Show” through January 30, Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street. 212-239-6200.

“Laugh Whore,” through January 2, Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street. 212-239-6200.

“The Good Body” (through January 2), Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street. 212-239-6200.

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