David Roberts / “With a smirk on their face, they wait now in the silence/and that dark hole/there, in front of me.” - The Artiste in “Music Hall”
Somewhere, someone is waiting backstage – or even on stage – to perform, to dance, to sing, or to tell a story to a gathered few sitting in the dark. Those gathered, for whatever reason, might be attentive, or not so attentive. They might even be eating or drinking or snoozing or chatting amongst themselves. Nevertheless, the one on stage, the performer, the artiste must go on “as cool as you please” and begin her or his act “slow and unconcerned.” Another someone tells the story of that Artiste assisted by two “Boys” in the remarkable and well-crafted “Music Hall” currently running at 59E59 Theater C.
Jean-Luc Lagarce’s script (translated by Joseph Long) is the sophisticated, multi-layered, and sometimes intriguing story of a Music Hall performer and her two supporting dancers/singers and their experience traversing the “circuit,” playing in one “epitome of remote provincialism” or other, dealing with venue managers (the “boss” who often warns, “with a story like that, mustn’t expect much people to come”), the audience (“they interrupt or would like to, and shout things”), and the “colleagues” who promise to come but never show up though promised “free passes and reserved seats.”
As the Artiste, Jeffrey Binder channels the “Madame” of the Music Hall and relates her engaging story with a powerful and aggressive authenticity. His transformation from narrator to Artiste is subtle and transfixing. Mr. Binder transforms 59E59 Theater C’s compact space into a burlesque banquet. He is comfortable on the small stage and seems to relish the opportunity to “get up and close” to his audience – an audience which ever so slowly realizes much of what is happening before them has a deep connection to their own theatergoing experience. As the “Boys,” Michael Doonan and Darren Hill are seductive, salacious, and scintillating as supporting cast, past supporting cast, lovers past and present, and – perhaps – even a husband.
Natasha Djukic’s costume and set designs are both sparse and highly effective as is Keith Parham’s lighting design. The “Boys” wear Title Lo-Top boxing shoes, a wonderful trope for the fight (internal and external) that erupts every time an actor steps on stage and the variety of conflicts inherent in the life of the theatre. Zeljko Djukic’s staging is electric, sometimes like a video game with characters suddenly appearing and requiring a “player’s” (audience member’s) quick response. From tip to tail, “Music Hall” is a brilliant exploration into the life of not just one performer, but an exploration into the very recesses of the magic of memory and remembering.
Because the story is told from multiple points of view and from different settings, it becomes a challenge – a welcomed challenge – to keep track of these complex characters and their conflicts. And hearing the story repeated, even by the same character, adds to the strength of the script. One of the most repeated lines from the story, “And sometimes again, and the most often, as recently as last week and yesterday again, and this evening too,” connects the action of the play to the precise moment of performance. The audience at 59E59 is “waiting in the silence and the dark hole” and that audience’s behavior often parallels the patrons in that “epitome or remote provincialism” mentioned in the script.
“Music Hall” – sometimes gently, sometimes less so – raises a series of rich and enduring questions about that which we call “the theatre.” What is the nature of performance? Who ultimately determines the effectiveness of a performance? Why do individuals choose to become theatre professionals and how do they survive the difficulties acting sometimes proffers? Why did the famous (and not so famous) music halls of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cease to draw audiences? What is the future of the theatre in urban and ex-urban environments? “Music Hall” also entertains and teases and titillates the senses and demands and, lingering long after the curtain call, beckons for an emotional response nothing short of catharsis.
Written by Jean-Luc Lagarce and directed by Zeljko Djukic. The cast of “Music Hall”features Jeffrey Binder, Michael Doonan, and Darren Hill. The production team includes Wain Parham (music director); Aileen McGroddy (movement director); Natasha Djukic (costume and set designer); Keith Parham (lighting designer); Christian Gero (sound designer); and Allison Raynes (stage manager). Production photos are by Anthony La Penna. “Music Hall” is presented by TUTA Theatre Chicago. “Music Hall” runs for a limited engagement through Sunday, April 12. The performance schedule is Tuesday - Thursday at 7:30 PM; Friday at 8:30 PM; Saturday at 2:30 PM & 8:30 PM; and Sunday at 3:30 PM & 7:30 PM. Performances are at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). Single tickets are $25 ($17 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or go to www.59e59.org.