by Lynn on March 28, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Theatre Passe Muraille. Written and performed by Maev Beaty and Erin Shields. Directed and dramaturged by Andrea Donaldson. Designed by Jung-Hye Kim. Lighting by Andrew Moro. Produced by Groundwater Productions in association with Theatre Passe Muraille.

Montparnasse is a terrific piece of theatre. When I first saw it at Summerworks I called it one of my top picks. Created and performed by Maev Beaty and Erin Shields, it is set in Paris in the heady 1920s and deals with art, hedonism, the agony of creating and the power of the muse, among other things.

Margaret, a Canadian, has come to Paris for adventure. She tries a few jobs to make a living before she lucks into the job of nude model. She’s good at it too and gets a reputation as a muse for several of her artists—always male. Sometimes her devotion goes to the physical. These are the free-wheeling, free-loving days in Paris, where there is always some rich man to buy a girl a bottle of champagne.

Margaret knows how to tame even the most amorous of painters and convince them that they should paint her first before they do anything else. She brings out the best in these men, artistically speaking. Names like Chagall, Picasso, Soutine float in the air (that last is a painter Margaret moves in with because she thinks she inspires him, until she gets bored).

Then one day her great friend Amelia arrives from Canada. (Peterborough to be precise). She had been intrigued by Margaret’s vibrant letters describing the exciting life she leads and wants some of it. Amelia sees her sister and friends marrying, moving away leaving her to herself. She wants to paint. Her father scoffs at the idea. She takes the plunge and leaves it all to follow her friend to Paris. There she will be inspired by this magical city. There she will paint.

It’s hard at first for Amelia to make a living. Then Margaret suggests she fill in for her at a modeling assignment. Amelia protests. She couldn’t do it. But finally does in order to buy her paints. In the process she suggests to the painter how to best capture what he is painting. It’s the light. The man was ignoring it.

All the while Amelia is posing and making money, she can’t paint. The inspiration she thought she would get from Paris hasn’t come. She gets inspiration from an unlikely source. She keeps passing a bookstore and noticing the woman proprietor. She wants to paint her. Amelia gets up the nerve to go in and ask. The woman is Sylvia Beach, the renowned proprietor of the equally renowned English bookstore, Shakespeare and Company; the unofficial agent for James Joyce and the organizer of her literary salons for expats in Paris—James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein.

The inspiration is immediate. Amelia paints Sylvia Beach, nude, and Amelia is euphoric
at the results. Because of the Beach connection Amelia is invited to contribute a painting to an upcoming exhibition.

Again she waits for Paris to inspire her. Disappointment again. This time it’s Margaret who is the inspiring model who gets Amelia to do her best work and finish the painting for the exhibit.

But there is trouble in the friendship. Amelia doesn’t say thank you or give credit to Margaret for her inspiration. Amelia says it could have been any model who did that. Margaret gets even in the worst way and that causes an irreparable rift. Amelia leaves for London. Margaret continues to pose in Paris.

Every part of this production—the writing, the performances and the direction-is exquisite. Director Andrea Donaldson gets the ‘novelty’ of looking at a nude woman out of the way immediately. The lights go up on a posing, nude Margaret—her arms above her head, bent back at the elbow, looking at us head on. She smiles the subtlest of smiles. And she holds the pose; and holds it; and, well you get the idea. Then just as naturally, she tells us of her coming to Paris and the story begins.

Maev Beaty as Amelia and Erin Shields as Margaret have written an elegant play about the power of a muse; the emotional difficulty of creating art; the need for recognition; seeing what you are looking at and not seeing what you are looking at. They were struck by all the famous nude paintings over the ages and how, for the most part, these models are anonymous. The artists, all male, get the glory, the model is just a means to it. Elsewhere in Paris at that time, women were celebrated for their unique contribution to the arts, but not if you were an anonymous nude model, who just might have been the inspiration for the painting.

Some of the images are stunning. Margaret describes “the smell of fresh made bread leaking through the windows.” Amelia is so taken with how easy it is to paint Sylvia Beach that she says that it is like ‘pulling her through the canvas.’ Amelia pleads with Paris to inspire her: “I’ll give myself to you if I can paint myself into your fame.”

A quibble; Beach is so important to Amelia and has such a profound affect on her, when she first meets her, that I thought it odd that she is not referred to again until later in the play. I find that laps odd.

Beaty and Shields are both accomplished actresses and have proven that in many productions. There is a special bond when they act together, a trust, an ease. Both women are confident in their skin both clothed and not. As the more conservative Amelia, Maev Beaty is all poise, with the angst hiding behind the smile. As Margaret, Erin Shields is more flamboyant, carefree, easy in that hedonistic life. Both give fearless, dazzling performances.

Andrea Donaldson’s direction and staging is fluid and never detracts from the story. It always enhances it. There is clever use of squares of blank canvas that represent written letters Amelia refers to, or later, paintings she has done from memory, specifically of the models, once she has left Paris. Amelia stands at the top of Jung-Hye Kim’s simple set holding a stack of the canvas squares. She speaks the names of the models she has painted and what happened to her in the end. She then drops the square to the floor below. Each square represents a painting. These are women she painted for the purpose of painting them specifically and not just the nude form. Each had a name and a history. Amelia gives voice to that identity. Yet wonderfully juxtaposed with these named women is Margaret in painting after painting, known only as “Nude in a Chair, or Nude on a Bed.” She is never named. Perhaps the saddest note of all is that while Amelia painted these women in London, she never had an exhibition.

Margaret wanted recognition for her contribution to the art and doesn’t get it, not with the men and certainly not with her friend Amelia. It’s obvious that Margaret is the reason for the success of these paintings. Earlier in the play she impishly paints her name into the painting for which she is posing. She doesn’t want fame I don’t think. But she does want quiet credit. Amelia is waiting for Paris to inspire her, not realizing it is first Sylvia Beach and then Margaret who is her muse in her work.

Montparnasse is a play about art, creation, seeing what is in front of you and not seeing it, about inspiration; about the power of the muse. It is a wonderfully written, beautifully acted and directed play that must be seen.

Montparnasse plays at Theater Passe Muraille, mainspace, until April 2, 2011.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.