Culture & Conversation

High on Incense

If theatre is the Vatican of Quebec, Michel Marc Bouchard is definitely a high-ranking cardinal. The sheer ambition of his sprawling frescos is enough to strike awe in an audience, as it did on opening night of The Madonna Painter at the Centaur.

Bouchard is the literary equivalent of Robert Lepage, the Quebec master of visual theatre. He gathers up rich ideas, characters, settings, bits of history and images, and shakes, rattles, transforms them by way of poetic language into a series of powerful individual scenes which, if staged as exquisitely as director Roy Surette has done, can be impressive and at some moments, quite gripping.

Watching a young girl whip a half-naked priest, especially in the same week we’ve been forced to hear still more about the sexual abuse scandal hitting Catholic clergy, makes it impossible not to think of that sad reality. (Though there is little evidence in the play to suggest the author is critical of either priests or whipping.)

The plot: 1918, a young priest arrives in a small Quebec town and hears that English (meaning English-speaking Canadian) soldiers are spreading the Spanish flu. In an effort to contain the epidemic, he commissions an Italian artist to paint a triptych of the Madonna which he is sure will ward off the plague. This being wartime, the village is full of man-starved young girls, one of whom will have the privilege of posing for the painting. The artist requires a virgin, but does everything in his power to render his choice otherwise.

The plays of Spanish master Federico Garcia Lorca come to mind, except that this plot is relentlessly episodic, not dramatic. When it all ends badly, the audience may be shocked, but it’s a distant, theoretical state of mind, not a feeling. Never for a moment are we encouraged to forget this is all just actors putting on a play. The sense of cast and audience going through an ordeal together is missing, because the playwright himself in not interested in re-creating reality, or forging a plot driven forward by fully engaged characters.

From Bouchard’s programme note: “The language of the play is not that of its inhabitants. My characters simply echo the medieval beliefs that shaped their destiny until recently … It is a collision of ecstasies, a bouquet of lies disguised as a fable.”

The problem with this play (if there is a problem) is the same one that affects Bouchard’s other plays – and for that matter, most of the post-’68 Quebecois canon: the dramatic structure, even the aesthetic, relies on the Latin mass for inspiration. All that Aristotle and his progeny preached, down to the current living master, David Mamet, has been soundly ignored. This is why we come away from this and so many other Quebec plays impressed, but not moved. Why we know nothing of Michel Marc Bouchard accept his taste – he worships art, beauty, purity, pain. The rest is banal.

Centaur’s production is excellent, the set by Pierre-Etienne Locas a stunning bit of modern architecture, a modern museum piece, using antiques as furniture and props hinting at some tasteful reconciliation with a bad time long ago.

Watching this play, we see how fully the collective Quebec psyche has and has not rid itself of that “medieval” era. “The Church” is an artefact, its sting no longer able to arouse rage. Life is not a contest, à la Aeschylus or Mamet, whether nasty, brutish or short. It is an exquisite, unchanging agony, at best endured on our knees.

The Madonna Painter is well worth seeing. A brave choice for Centaur, ably upheld by cast and crew, it is stiff corrective to the modest comic-dramas that all too often make the rounds of major Canadian stages.

Let it wash over you. Don’t try to find the logos, the cogent intelligence, the hand-of-god-the-author behind it all. Enjoy the spectacle, and trust that some day all will be revealed.

The Madonna Painter continues at Centaur Theatre until May 2. Box office 514-288-3161.

Marianne Ackerman’s 3rd novel, Piers’ Desire, about a tortured monk manqué and his longstanding battle with Eros, will be launched at the Blue Met literary festival on April 23, 7:30 pm. 777 University Ave. A public event, drinks on the publisher, McArthur & Co.

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