by Michel Marc Bouchard
Translated by Linda Gaboriau
Directed by Eda Holmes
Playing through December 13th

Reviewed by Robin Breon

Factory Theatre’s 40th anniversary season continues to exhibit strong programming with the English premiere of Quebec playwright Michel Marc Bouchard’s The Madonna Painter. It is another example of some of the best work in Canadian theatre today emanating from la belle province (also including the likes of Woujdi Mouawad, Robert Lepage, et al) that brings with it a strong cultural locus, a moving sense of place and a sense of purpose which might explain why the work of these artists is embraced so profoundly by the international community. I mean this very much in a generic sense, not necessarily that the themes or subject matter of the work has to be located in Quebec, although that is the case with Bouchard’s play which is set in 1918 Lac St. Jean at the time of the Spanish Flu epidemic.

In the opening scene of The Madonna Painter we meet a young woman who works as a laundress named Mary Louise (all the women in the village have Mary as their first given name). She reads sheets the way a psychic divines tea leaves. Mary Louise knows if there was love or estrangement between the sheets – deep sleep or fitful nightmares. Her sheets become a metaphor for life and death within this small, very rural Catholic village of which she is a part; the sheet as swaddling cloth, the sheet as shawl, the sheet as shroud. Nicola Correia-Damude  plays the language of this scene as if it were a Shakespearean sonnet, with a soulful longing and heartfelt tenderness that right away pulls us into the spirit of the play.

Into this community comes a young, idealistic priest whose first project is to commission an Italian painter to create a fresco dedicated to the Virgin Mary in order to protect his parish from the flu epidemic. Marc Bendavid is the young priest who must wrestle with his earthly desires while constructing a spiritual barricade against God’s own wrath. Juan Chioran is the droll artist who, after auditioning all the other Marys in the village (played by Miranda Edwards, Shannon Taylor, and Jenny Young) to be his model for the Madonna, succumbs to more powerful earthly desires in the final consummation of his project.

Brian Dooley plays the village physician with a perfect sense of drunken morbidity. The role is a grim statement on the temporal quality of existence in ways that ultimately bridge into the macabre.

Director Eda Holmes handles her talented cast with a sense of secular spontaneity that never flags. Sue Lepage’s set and Beth Kates’ lighting design also facilitates the action nicely. Ms. Holmes has been busy around town this season, moving from Factory Theatre back to Nightwood for an upcoming production of Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money. Looking forward to it.

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