The Madonna Painter Paints a Masterpiece

jenny young as “mary of the secrets” and juan chioran as “allesandro, the italian painter” in michel marc bouchard’s the madonna painter playing november 19 – december 13, 2009 at factory theatre. ed gass donnelly photo.
There is a great line in The Madonna Painter, the world premiere of the English Translation of the play by Michel Marc Bouchard by Linda Gaboriau playing at the Factory Theatre until December 13th, 2009, which depicts the English World War I soldiers searching for deserters in Quebec thus: “they speak in English but they cough in Spanish.” Here, Bouchard is alluding to the Spanish Flu, which claimed more than 50 million victims worldwide between March 1918 and June 1920. It could be said, then, that today in Toronto we speak in English and cough in Pig Latin. And yet, as integral as this pandemic is to Bouchard’s story, The Madonna Painter is not about the flu, it is about the power of art and how the residents of one isolated Quebecoise village seek to find salvation from the invasion of a virus that does not seem to discriminate between the righteous and the immoral. How does a town so richly embedded in the Catholic Church keep its faith when death becomes entirely arbitrary?
Each of the characters in this play responds to this question differently. For Mary Louise, she becomes preoccupied with reading the fortunes of her neighbors in each bed sheet she washes. The Doctor becomes obsessed with finding scientific proof of the existence of a human soul. Mary of the Secrets is said to have the gift to lead the dying toward the light, and after they whisper their secrets to Mary, she buries them forever in an otherwise barren field. Mary Frances roots herself in the present moment and lives without thought to the consequences of her actions. She surrounds herself with all the pleasures (and sins) of the flesh, while Mary Anne searches for something more ethereal. Mary Anne finds her passion in the young priest, who is convinced that if the Church commissions a beautiful fresco of the Madonna painted by an acclaimed Italian artist, it will protect their village from any plague. The artist, Alessandro, is not interested in redemption so much as passion, beauty and mystery and it is fascinating to watch how seamlessly Bouchard weaves the passion to create art and the passion to cling to faith together.
What is most striking about this play is its language. Michel Marc Bouchard fills every inch of this story with vivid, rich, poetic imagery that leave gorgeously haunting impressions. It is a wonder that this play has been translated from French, which is a testament to the talents of Linda Gaboriau and the obvious connection she has to Bouchard’s writing style. Reza Jacobs’ evocative original score captures the world of the play with absolute precision and roots the play very firmly with its time and place. Eda Holmes’ direction makes creative, yet always clear, use of space, all of which captures the poetry of Bouchard’s text.
Amid the poetry and the art are seven brilliant actors who provide The Madonna Painter with its darkness, its fierceness and its complex, gripping immediacy. Miranda Edwards gives the play its rebellious exuberance as Mary Frances. Shannon Taylor is fascinating as the innocent Mary Anne who becomes swept up in something frighteningly masochistic. She also has one of the funniest moments of the play when she recites verses from the Bible as though she has a mammoth amount of peanut butter stuck to the roof of her mouth. Brian Dooley gives an eerie performance as the doctor, whose motivations are shrouded in mystery and blanketed with mistrust from his very first entrance. Marc Bendavid is beautifully compelling as the Young Priest, who seems so gentle and fragile, yet whose determination is cast in iron by the end of the play. Juan Chioran is a magnificent charmer as Alessandro, the artist, who is especially mesmerizing when he begins the play speaking in Italian. Nicola Correia-Damude is strikingly vulnerable as Mary Louise, a woman who finds such earnest joy and eternal hope in the creases of a bed sheet. It is heartbreaking to watch as the flu slowly drains her of her happiness and her sense of purpose in life. Jenny Young gives every ounce of soul to Mary of the Secrets, whether she is vehemently dedicated to keeping the secrets of the dead, or passionately outpouring herself to Alessandro, Young creates a poignant portrait of a girl who tragically learns a lesson of human weakness and the risk of placing all of one’s faith in the hands of another.
The Madonna Painter explores the role of beauty in art, and the power it can have on human faith and devotion. The play itself, in all its complex darkness and disturbing twists, mirrors the image of Christ’s mother, who, as mentioned in the play, is seen as the most “beautiful” during the time of her greatest suffering, the moment she watched her only child perish on the cross. Even as the flu sweeps across the world, amid crisis, panic and desperation, Michel Marc Bouchard, true artists that he is, will find the poetry, and the beauty in the seams, and make it a work of art.
The Madonna Painter plays until December 13th, 2009 at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street- Adelaide). Tickets may be purchased by calling 416 504-9971 or visiting www.factorytheatre.ca. Sunday performances are Pay What You Can and there are a limited number of $10.00 RUSH tickets available on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday in person at the box office. 125 Bathurst Street.

Leave a Reply