Long before H1N1 reared its porcine head, the Spanish Flu claimed more than 50 million victims worldwide. It was 1918, World War l had just ended and medical science was still pretty much at the leeches and cod-liver-oil stage. In The Madonna Painter, Michel Marc Bouchard’s new play at Factory Theatre, the citizens of a remote village in Northern Quebec turn to the Catholic Church as the only hope of healing and protection.
The arrival of an enthusiastic new priest injects fresh energy and hope into the beleaguered community. The young cleric (played by Marc Bendavid) is convinced that only a demonstration of faith will keep the villagers safe; he commissions a painting of the Madonna (Mary, not Madge) from a travelling Italian artist named Alessandro (Juan Chioran).
The painter begins to audition local girls to sit as his model, finally settling on a young girl named Mary of the Secrets (Jenny Young). Unfortunately it seems that Alessandro needs to dip his brush into more than just a pot of paint to capture beauty. Mary demurs at first, but finally relents after being told by the priest that it’s her duty to inspire the mercurial artist.
“It’s about the obscurity and control of religion,” says Bouchard, who drew from his own experiences growing up in a strongly Catholic town. “I was born near the end of what we call The Great Darkness in Quebec when the church was everywhere — the schools, the courts, everywhere.”
This was during the reign of ultra-conservative premiere Maurice Duplessis and his Union Nationale. Duplessis strictly enforced Catholic doctrine upon Quebeckers until his death. This ecclesiastic omnipresence made a big impression on the young gay Bouchard.
“My first contact with magic was the church,” he says. “This guy dies for three days, and then he rises and flies. It was beautiful mythology.”
Images of a half-naked guy on a cross didn’t hurt either. “It was my first sensual and sexual awakening. Like the Madonna painter, I was looking for ecstasy.”
Bouchard is truly a painter of words, using evocative and mellifluous text to create vivid stories. So lyrical and delicately lovely are his plays Lilies and The Orphan Muses that I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t realize they were originally written à la française.
I’m relieved that Bouchard is pleased with my confession. “Excellent,” he laughs. “Then we did our job!”
The “we” he’s referring to is himself and translator Linda Gaboriau, a long-time collaborator in exporting Bouchard’s work to the world. Gaboriau’s contribution goes far beyond merely translating the words. Hours of conversation, questions and clarifications go into her meticulous recreation of Bouchard’s vivid prose in English.
“Every playwright has his own musicality,” says Bouchard. “(Linda) knows my music, my poetic construction and can hear the musicality of the words in French. She’s one of the best.”
Director Eda Holmes also hears the music in Bouchard’s words. The celebrated dancer, choreographer and director is approaching The Madonna Painter from an almost impressionistic point of view, highlighting both the mystical and human nature of Bouchard’s piece.
“This is play made of art,” says Holmes, “and is an amazing examination of the way art functions. On one hand we want art to be beautiful and show us beautiful things, but the pursuit of art is to show the truth. With Michel Marc the two often collide, and that’s what makes his art so influential and compelling.”
The Madonna Painter also stars Nicola Correia-Damude, Brian Dooley, Miranda Edwards and Shannon Taylor, and makes its English debut on Thu, Nov 19.