Erin Shields and Maev Beaty strip away layers of clothing, and obfuscating decades, to tell the story of two life models in 1920s Montparnasse. Photo by Aviva Armour-Ostroff.
A pair of Canadian women, childhood friends, are reunited in 1920s Paris. Margaret, the thrill-seeker and dilettante, has already made a name and career for herself as a life model for the city’s thriving community of bohemian artists; Amelia has followed her across the ocean with ambitions of becoming a successful painter herself, pinning all her hopes on finding inspiration in the City of Lights. Both will shed their inhibitions (and clothes) pursuing their dreams, but they’ll find that their aspirations run counter to the official status accorded to anonymous models—and perhaps, to their own artistic gifts.
We’d previously written about Groundwater Productions’ Montparnasse, very favourably, when it was produced at the 2009 Summerworks Festival (we also covered its ASL performances much more recently). Co-created by performers Maev Beaty and Erin Shields and director Andrea Donaldson, our first review had plenty to say about how the models, who encouraged and inspired the artists who immortalized their forms on canvas, were denied credit for their collaborations. That question is even more prevalent in this iteration of the play, though it’s questionably framed (we’ll get to that).
For this more fully realized production, and to get another take, we decided to bring along an exceedingly qualified life-modelling expert: Sarah Joy Bennett, an actress with ten years experience as a life model—in fact, she worked as one in Paris while attending theatre school.
Our initial thoughts (and to be clear these are ours, not Bennett’s, whose opinions we’ll note specifically) were that this production had raised the bar in two design areas: the set, a drapery that envelops the whole stage, was a wonderful touch by designer Jung-Hye Kim (who we recognized for her work on Iphegina At Aulis at last year’s Summerworks); and the lighting design by Andy Moro, which frees the performers from the isolated pockets of light (or general wash) that limited the actresses’ movement in previous productions. Beaty and Shields make use of the long staircase from stage to balcony, and range all over the Passe Muraille stage.
The creators obviously put a lot of time into researching the mechanics and minutia of working as a life model, and in the actors’ cases, preparing for all the time spent completely nude onstage. Both Shields (who became a mother in the two years since the Summerworks production) and Beaty seem completely comfortable in their own skins. Beaty, in particular, according to Bennett, would do very well as a life model, nailing those poses that suggest the split-second “moment before movement.”
And, yet, the longer running time hasn’t greatly expanded the world these two models occupy. That is to say, the supporting characters—both the historically significant, such as writer Henry Joyce and artist Jules Pascin, and the colourful creations, like “The Queen,” an esteemed social maven—haven’t been fleshed out beyond caricature, though their one-dimensional traits are portrayed exceedingly well, especially by Beaty, who does lasciviousness to perfection. The one supporting character who gets some depth and development—Sylvia Beach, a bookstore owner and Joyce hanger-on (played by Shields)—factors in one of the more memorable scenes, when her brusque demeanor is shattered into trembling vulnerability by Amelia’s amorous advances.
This focus on the two main characters at the expense of Paris is understandable, since the creators’ stated intention is to tell the story of the life models and other behind-the-scenes members of the art world who history has generally neglected. After all, Paris in the ’20s has been explored to excess in literature and film. The increased stage time spent on the two main characters, however, results in a somewhat cliched “odd couple” comparison and eventually turns their relationship adversarial. We see the women develop differing views on the importance of a model’s contribution to a painting or sculpture. It’s an odd conflict to use as a wedge between the friends, who both seem to take pride in their work as models. (In one especially effective scene, Amelia forces a lustful painter to properly consider lighting and angles while painting her.)
Montparnasse is an effective showcase for its two versatile performers, full of witty writing and beautiful moments, and to be commended for its attention to detail, both historical and topical. It also certainly hit home for our subject-matter expert Bennett, who noted afterward that in her decade of off-and-on modeling, she has only been credited by name on a painting once.
That said, we were slightly disappointed with how the artists and denizens of Montparnasse, glimpsed tantalizingly in previous productions, didn’t prove more pivotal to the conflict of the play. If the point is that the models deserved more credit for their collaborations with artists—and Amelia and Margaret, who prove to be deeply flawed both as productive artists and as friends, aren’t strong candidates for immortality for any reasons other than their modelling—then that undercurrent of inequity should manifest more clearly in their contemporaries. To make it a source of personal disagreement between the two main characters makes it hard for the audience to sympathize with them and, worse, makes one of them an apologist for the casual disregard of the unknown women who helped create some of the twentieth century’s greatest art.
Groundwater Productions’ Montparnasse runs until April 2 at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Avenue), Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m., $30–$35 (with 2 p.m. Saturday PWYC matinees).
This review originally stated that the two main characters of Montparnasse are American, when in fact they are Canadian. We regret the error.