“We are what we are and what we are is an illusion.” —Les Cagelles in La Cage aux Folles
If you should happen to ski, sled, or snowshoe out to the Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre before March 22, you’ll see Gene Weygandt and company enact the tale of Albin, veteran drag diva, who packs them in night after night at a Saint Tropez club called La Cage aux Folles. Albin has a crisis when her more or less adoptive son, Jean-Michel, becomes engaged to a conservative politician’s daughter: Fearing that she’ll, well, queer the deal, J-M tries to push Albin not just back into the closet but entirely out of her home. High jinks ensue, and also some soul searching—to a smart, tender score by Jerry Herman. Albin comes through it all with wigged head held high, thanks in large part to the enduring relationship she shares with her significant other (and J-M’s father), Georges. Especially as embodied by Weygandt, the crucial lesson of Albin’s trauma is that real love—that is, love lived day in, day out through years, in what’s often called a “marriage”—makes the lovers real as well.
Think The Velveteen Rabbit with rouge.
But suppose Albin didn’t have Georges. Or worse, that Georges had turned out to be a coward and a cad, dumping Albin after she’d fallen for him but before they’d had a chance to grow into each other. Suppose they’d never started La Cage—and therefore a home—together, with Georges providing the managerial prowess and compliments while Albin concentrated on making their world rain glitter.
That’s the situation in Music Hall, a 1988 play by French theater artist Jean-Luc Lagarce, running now in a 90-minute English-language staging from TUTA.
If La Cage aux Folles is Bedford Falls, a la It’s a Wonderful Life, Music Hall is the Potterville nightmare . . . as Samuel Beckett might imagine it. A poised and practiced performer known to us only as the Artiste (motto: “Slow and unconcerned”) has come to a hellhole called Beaverlick, Kentucky (which actually exists, by the way), for yet another money-losing, foot-bruising, soul-killing stop on her never-ending tour. In her early days, about 15 years before, the Artiste had a partner she was pleased to call her “husband,” who did song-and-dance numbers with her onstage and looked after both the business and romantic sides of things off-. He gave her the great comfort of seeing to it that transportation was arranged, contracts negotiated, good money paid in full and on time.
Yet when things started to stagnate, he didn’t, say, take her to Branson to build a theater. No, the putative husband lit out for parts unknown. Since then the Artiste has traveled with chorus boys who stick around a while but never catch hold, never take the initiative. As a consequence, the transportation, the contracts, the money all get worse. As do the audiences. (Second motto: “When you’ve been through hell you don’t fear the devil.”) As does the act itself, which has apparently remained frozen in amber since the day of the great leave-taking. Madonna may rebrand herself every few seasons, not the Artiste. She’s as brittle, and occasionally as nasty, as Miss Havisham.
Literary allusions come easy when discussing Music Hall because it’s built on a very familiar set of tropes. You won’t find anything like a plot twist or even a genuine surprise here. The interest is all in the manner of the telling, which, at the verbal level, progresses on the backs of little narratives that crack up and recombine to draw closer and closer to the truth. The two chorus boys talk between themselves, comparing what they think they know of the Artiste’s story. Later, she takes up the same thread from another angle and something is understood. Fragments from their act pass among them in pretty much the same way.
This continual, skewed repetition contributes to the thing I find most fascinating about Music Hall: the sense that the Artiste’s life itself is undergoing the same process of crack-up and recombination, but in the opposite direction—further and further from clarity. It’s like generation loss in IT, the idea that data gets more chaotic as it’s copied. Each chorus boy is a paler version of the husband, each dance number a weaker variant on its predecessor, every gig a step away from love.
The role of the Artiste has been performed by women in the past; Jeffrey Binder takes it on in this production directed by Zeljko Djukic. Binder does an effective job of driving the character between extremes, from Miss Mannersesque grace to something more befitting Miss Manners’s evil twin. His look, devised by costume designer Natasha Djukic, made me think of an Avedon photo shoot circa 1955. Michael Doonan and Darren Hill provide strong support overall as the chorus boys, though I wish director Djukic had found more interesting physical business for them than a running gag about how hard it is to hold a pose.