Faith, like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder. But to have true faith or true beauty, one must dig deep. The same can be said of theatre: to have great theatre, actors must reach deep and believe what their characters believe so that we, as an audience, in turn believe them. Without that fundamental connection the audience can be left as simple observers with no emotional connection to the characters or story. Last night at the Theatre UBC presentation of The Madonna Painter, I was that observer.
Arriving in Lac Saint-Jean, Quebec in 1918, a young handsome priest (Eric Freilich) has come upon a plan to rid the residents of the Spanish Flu pandemic which is ravaging the village. He sets out to commission a triptych of the Virgin Mary, paid for by the necrophilia loving Doctor (Ben Whipple), using one of four young village girls who all happened to be named Mary (Claire Hesselgrave, Christine Quintana, Barbara Kozicki and Meaghan Chenosky). As each young girl auditions for the role of model, it is Mary of the Secrets (Chenosky), who dying villagers confess their sins, who is ultimately chosen by the Italian painter Alessandro (Jameson Parker).
While each of the cast here tries hard, they seem to be hampered by playwright Michel Marc Bouchard’s play structure. Each scene is presented up like part of a painting, a tableau of scenes if you will, each expected to build upon the next to what should be the masterpiece. Unfortunately, that masterpiece never quite materializes and we are left admiring Bouchard’s work only as discarded sketches of that larger painting; the connection we need to immerse ourselves into their world never quite comes into full focus.
The choice to place the action within a representative church, even some of the theatre seats are designed to look like pews, is a brilliant choice by scenic designer Claudia Contoral, acting as a constant reminder of the connection the inhabitants of the story have to their faith. Projections high above the stage in frames echo the location of a particular scene and again act as a reminder of the work of art that is being created.
A bold choice in presenting the work of one of Canada’s more daring playwrights, The Madonna Painter unfortunately only ever succeeds in proving that beauty really is only skin deep.
The Madonna Painter
TELUS Studio Theatre, Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, UBC
11 – 20 November 2010