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Belle Epoque

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Whores? Check. Absinthe? Check. A can-can kick line? Triple check. The playwrights have certainly met quota in their perverse biographical work about Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s syphilitic final days in Montmartre. There’s simulated sex, a bar fight, a loofah scene that would do Bill O’Reilly proud. Yet the more depraved the scenes (designed to evoke specific Lautrec images) become, the more Belle Epoque’s demimonde begins to evoke a back street of Colonial Williamsburg—except that tourists are learning how to contract STDs rather than how to churn butter. Some songs and dialogue are in French, some in avant-garde-ese. “My sense of optimism is not renewed,” groans a pretty young slag. But the real show is on the intelligent, elderly faces of the Lincoln Center subscription audience as they veer from horror to bemusement when, for example, a woman in a Raggedy Ann-y costume lifts up her skirt and performs an extended tribute to her “little cat,” at which point the bar’s dandies recoil, holding handkerchiefs to their noses. Who would have thought France’s artistic heyday could be epitomized by that not-so-fresh feeling?

Belle Epoque
by Martha Clarke and Charles L. Mee
At The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center


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