Marc Bendavid is like a virgin, getting flagellated for the very first time. Photo by Ed Gass Donnelly.
Michel Marc Bouchard’s The Madonna Painter is currently receiving its English-language debut at the Factory Theatre. French-Canadian plays are all about Catholicism and homoerotics, so if you guessed that the Madonna in question is more likely to be the Virgin Mary than Esther Ciccone, you’re absolutely right!
We find ourselves in a rural Quebecois community in the year 1918 (although, it might as well be “once upon a time”). It’s a strange, twee village, populated only, so far as we can tell, by several women named Mary, and a seriously creepy, necrophiliac doctor who somehow doesn’t really bother anyone. Armistice hasn’t yet been signed, but the war is winding down, and prudish Mary Anne hangs out in the woods with sluttier Mary Frances looking for deserting soldiers to marry. In a stroke of topical coincidence (the play was originally written in the pre-H1N1 days of 2003), these soldiers bring with them the deadly Spanish Flu, which becomes a source of mild paranoia for the town. Instead of a diseased deserter, Mary Anne encounters remarkably handsome Young Priest (and believe us, it’s gonna be remarked about a lot). His plan to save the village from influenza? A painting! With the financial backing of that grave-robbing sociopath of a town doctor, he has hired an Italian painter to give the church a new Madonna triptych, and all the town’s Marys come to audition for the coveted role of artist’s model. For the women, this is as much about meeting an Italian as being an artist’s muse. The Italian in question, Alessandro, passes over the aforementioned Mary Anne and Mary Frances, and also Mary Louise, a washerwoman who reads the creases in people’s sheets like lines on a palm, in favour of Mary of the Secrets. This fourth Mary possesses the dubious gift of being able to receive the secrets of the dying, which she spits out into a barren field.
Fans of John Greyson’s Lilies, which is adapted from a Bouchard play, will come prepared for the lyrical language and the magical realism, but the story just isn’t as good here. And that’s very frustrating, because there are so many things this production gets right. Eda Holmes’s direction is typically solid, and the show contains several beautifully staged moments, including the secret-spitting and a rather shocking flagellation scene that should be unstageable, yet somehow works perfectly. The cast does an admirable job with their decidedly quirky characters. All of the young women playing the Marys do commendable work, and Marc Bendavid does his best to try to pull off the character of the nameless Young Priest whose various decisions and transformations render him pretty much unactable by the play’s conclusion. But somehow, the story can’t help seeming bogus. Events are happenstance and never feel weighty, even when characters are dying or about to be horrifically mutilated. People make choices that don’t make any sense, resulting in consequences that don’t earn the profundity for which they strive. And all we’re left with at the end of the day is some faux-Revelations poetry and a bunch of misogynist madonna/whore baggage.
The Madonna Painter runs until December 13.