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Music Hall

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray


Jeffrey Binder
Photo by Anthony La Penna

It's often said that pornography can't be easily defined, but you know it when you see it. Does the same apply to genius? Is there an objective benchmark for defining what makes someone brilliant rather than a bozo? A legitimate achiever rather than a hack? A success rather than a failure? In his play Music Hall, the TUTA Theatre Chicago production of which just opened at 59E59, Jean-Luc Legarce does not provide prepackaged answers, assuming doing so is even possible. He merely presents the evidence from multiple perspectives and lets you decide for yourself, the deftest trick in an otherwise unremarkable evening.

Legarce, whose writing has been translated from the French by Joseph Long, has chosen as the vehicle for his exploration the theatre, a place where fact is naturally muddy. The death or disappearance of a "great" star inspires reminiscences by her two singing-and-dancing-and-clowning backup performers (the fine duo of Michael Doonan and Darren Hill) and a mysterious gentleman (Jeffrey Binder) who was obsessed with her every action, her every line, and her every intention—so much so that within a few minutes he's already assumes her role and personality permanently. This actress, whoever she was, soon comes to live exclusively in the memories and interpretations of others.

If that's the theatre in a nutshell, the quickly passing, ineffable essence of someone that can be conveyed only by first-hand accounts and not film or video, we're soon left questioning the merits of the woman they're lionizing. Would—could—a transcendent star conduct her career only in theaters so tiny that scant inches separate the backstage from the audience, and that can't accommodate her single request for a stool? How can someone change the world when they can't attract popular audiences, or in many cases audiences at all? And were her concepts of the theatre, and of presenting herself, an accurate reflection of her deepest artistic impulses, or her inane fumblings with tools she didn't know how to use to tell stories no one needed to hear?

The details that emerge of her foundering livelihood, her questionable business practices, and her unnecessarily torrid personal life underscore the transformational powers of the stage: It's unlikely that such a figure would be tolerated, let alone celebrated, in any other profession. Yet as Binder's character vanishes more and more into the challenge of playing "The Artiste," we see just as much of the dedicated professional for whom "the show must go on" is more than a credo, but as essential as breathing, and who viewed every aspect of what she did and how she did it as though it was the only thing that mattered. Detestable as The Artiste can be, she's also an ideal, and there's value in that, even if there's perhaps rather less in what she ultimately produces.

Such contradictions, which arise with dizzying frequency, are what keep Music Hall afloat—though its 90-minute running time is pushing it. Long's translation generally maintains a workable balance between earthy and lofty, though he'll usually err on the side of the latter, with the resulting operatic intensity granting many of the mundane recitations (about props, about costumes, about transportation) equal weight to those about, say, her storytelling philosophy, which can be a bit much to swallow. Zeljko Djukic's staging also keeps all the described events on one level throughout, leading to similarly inert emotions; part of the point is that no one feels as deeply as The Artiste does, but his insisting that our own feelings must not evolve with every (or any) new revelation is, in itself, off-putting.

Binder doesn't skimp on the size or sweep of his portrayal of The Artiste, and his pursed smile and sweeping movements appropriately elevate even the mildest milliseconds to the electrical stratum of a curtain call. But his is a bland grand: complete, yes, but not encompassing or enveloping. All of The Artiste's world may indeed be a stage, but the glimpses we view of it, and of her interactions with it, hint at a detachment rather than an unshakable devotion, as though even she knows everything about herself is all an act. That's a fair spin on The Artiste—spend any time at all in the theatre and you'll meet at least someone incapable of turning off their performing persona—but to justify everything that happens, there need to be additional layers that Binder never uncovers.

Intentionally or not, this play reminds us that the curtain exists for a reason, but that acknowledging the distinct worlds before and behind it is not the same as fully comprehending them. Some people, like some plays, are simply determined to not be known; all we can do is take what they give us, and hope for the best. Music Hall could give us more—a lot more—but it succeeds in presenting the dangers and blessings of the unknowable, the joys and sorrows inherent in trying to understand an art and its practitioners when the veil of secrecy that surrounds them is the source of not only our fascination and frustration but also their infinite power to entertain, move, and inspire.


Music Hall
Through April 12
59E59 Theaters - Theater C, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral


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