The Madonna Painter
Written by Michel Marc Bouchard
Translated by Linda Gaboriau
Directed by Eda Holmes
Starring Marc Bendavid, Juan Chioran, Nicola Correia-Damude, Brian Dooley, Miranda Edwards, Shannon Taylor, and Jenny Young
Runs November 19 – December 13 @ Factory Theatre
By Daina Valiulis
The Madonna Painter tells the story of an eager and idealistic young priest (Marc Bendavid) who commissions a fresco to be painted of the Virgin Mary in order to appeal to God to protect the people of his village from the Spanish flu epidemic.
Set in 1918 Lac St. Jean, Québec, the play introduces Mary Louise (Nicola Correira-Damunde), a laundress at an inn who reads the creases in people’s sheets to unlock their secrets; the young and sweet Mary Anne; the sensual and hungry Mary Frances (Miranda Edwards); Mary of the Secrets (Jenny Young), to whom people confess their deepest, darkest deeds before they die; and the Doctor (Brian Dooley), who has an unhealthy love of chopping off people’s body parts.
The ladies are charming and sympathetic, and the Italian Painter is played with mysterious foreign seduction by Juan Choiran. Marc Bendavid as the priest is earnest, worried, and a bit over articulate, which, at times, works with the character and the rest of the time just starts to sound the same (with the occasional volume adjustment).
“When beauty becomes too talkative, it is boring,” says the Doctor at one point, and point taken. The play opens with the young priest describing his idea for a fresco and fervently staring off into the audience. This sort of monologue is fascinating for the actor, but not as much for the audience. It’s similar to when Shakespeare is done badly: if imagery becomes overbearing, the story gets muddled. But, of course, the beautiful poetry of the words cannot be completely ignored. It’s a fine balance that The Madonna Painter doesn’t always strike.
What was interesting, however, was the way different characters were woven into the story. Each of the women has a small scene: Mary Louise reads her sheets, Mary Anne and Mary Frances (with her eyes closed) spy on naked, bathing soldiers. Mary of the Secrets returns from a deathbed and tells her horrible secrets to the earth of an empty field. The priest, who began the play describing his fresco, is inspired by each young lady in turn and after each of these scenes jots down ideas about a triptych based on these villagers and the play moves on. This section most strongly supported the theme of art imitating life, just as Bouchard himself was inspired by events surrounding the creation of the fresco in the church of Saint-Coeur de Marie in the Lac Saint-Jean region of Québec. Art further imitates the lives of these characters when their worlds succumb to the dark realities of the time as the play wraps up.
In all, the show is forgettable. The set was fine, using the entire proscenium stage set up in a sort of triptych with a raised area in the centre, flanked by two curtained areas. There were moments of beauty and ugly despair and at times the story was interesting and puzzling, but there were also moments of melodrama and acting that was too fervent. In the end, one is reminded of the fact that art strives to tell us the truth about ourselves even though we may not always like what it says.