In 2008, Aaron Cromie was acting in Steve Martin’s play “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” at the Delaware Theater Company, which at one point required him to sit frozen on stage, staring into the night sky. During one performance, he found his thoughts straying from Picasso to another renowned painter – namely, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, famous for his depictions of the dancing girls at the Moulin Rouge as well as for his diminutive stature.
On this particular evening, Cromie was struck by the realization that he was 36 years old — the same age at which the legendarily prolific and masterful painter had died. “So,” concluded Mary Tuomanen, Cromie’s partner on and off the stage, when relating the story, “the fact that Aaron kind of resembles Lautrec and that he’d had this profound experience thinking about Lautrec while looking at fake stars at Delaware Theater Company, all added up.”
The result was “The Body Lautrec,” which opens in previews Sept. 12 at UArts as part of this year’s Neighborhood Fringe. The show combines live theater and puppetry to depict Lautrec’s life, with a focus on his bodily disfigurements. Born with a congenital bone disorder, the artist suffered an injury as a teenager that left his legs stunted, and later succumbed to alcoholism-aggravated syphilis at a young age. These ailments are depicted via the use of puppet skeletons representing the unseen deterioration of Lautrec’s body.
“There are different skeletons that represent these conditions at different ages so that we really get an idea of what he was dealing with in a way that we hope will be beautiful and visually poetic,” Cromie says. “This way we don’t need words to convey what it is to suffer this bone disease; we can see it affect the very core of his skeleton.”
With Cromie starring and Tuomanen directing, the show flips the pair’s usual roles, as in last year’s acclaimed “Saint Joan, Betrayed.” The production draws inspiration from the Mutter Museum, where the play was researched, as well as Lautrec’s own imagery.
“When you look at a Lautrec painting, there might be a famous dancer kicking high in the air in the foreground, but what Lautrec wants you to look at is the person in the crowd who’s alone, or sad, or in love that no one is looking at. So we realized that in staging the play, we had to make everybody look at the thing that’s secret and private and intimate, which is the sweetest thing about Lautrec’s paintings.”
‘The Body Lautrec’
Caplan Studio Theater at the University of the Arts
211 S. Broad St.