Here's the bare-bones plot of Montparnasse: Two Canadian women move to Paris in the 1920s and become professional nudes. The movie rights, I'm sure, will be snapped up any moment now.
Outgoing Margaret (Erin Shields) is the first Canuck on the ground. After quickly determining that sausage-maker's apprentice is not a career that fits her party lifestyle, she finds work taking her flapper dresses off as an artist's model for the likes of Chagall and Picasso.
Next arrives aspiring artist Amelia (Maev Beaty), who is at first reluctant to follow in her friend's barefoot steps and go the full Montparnasse. She soon sheds her inhibitions, however, and clothes swiftly follow - she needs to pay for her expensive but not lucrative painting habit, and wants to observe the new experimental techniques bubbling around Paris up close and very personal.
Meeting famous people proves to be remarkably easy for the both of them. Margaret - or Mags, as she reinvents herself - drinks and dances with Man Ray and Josephine Baker while shouting, "Death to gravediggers!" Amelia, meanwhile, fends off a lecherous Jules Pascin, seduces Shakespeare and Company's Sylvia Beach and then tops the evening off with cigars with James Joyce.
Despite brief, amusing impersonations of these famous people, all the drive-by name-dropping becomes a tad tiresome, a wink to the audience that develops into a tic. It does speak to the larger theme of the play, however, I suppose: Painters like Chagall still have name recognition nearly a century on, but the women who surrounded them - models and artists, many of who met rather unfortunate ends - are forgotten (if they were ever known).
Montparnasse's chief pleasure comes from the well-honed stage chemistry between Beaty and Shields, who created their characters and co-wrote the play with director Andrea Donaldson. Both performers enjoy a little clown-inspired goofiness, which is indulged here, and they play to their strengths: Beaty with her beady eyes specializing in buttoned-up gals who secretly want to go wild, Shields with her ferocious ones that seem to naturally brim over with suggested recklessness.
Much of the two-person show is narrated straight to the audience in slightly overexuberant prose, as if Mags and Amelia are writing confessional letters back home. Donaldson's direction doesn't double up on telling the tale, thankfully, instead backing up the words with contrasting and often metaphorical movement, such as Mags tumbling down a flight of stairs.
And, of course, plenty of nude posing. Beaty's nudity is performed mainly in context, but Shields's exhibition of her body is a little more subversive. She did an earlier version of this show at the SummerWorks Festival three months pregnant; now she's showing off her postpartum body. So the nudity here is not strictly speaking about getting into costume as Mags.
It's not about titillation either. Shields and Beaty offer up their bodies, unmediated, for inspection. It's meant as an antidote, I'd guess, to all the airbrushed naked or nearly naked women that surround us. (And they do surround us: We have to install special software on our browsers to prevent them from popping up as we surf the Internet.)
That's just a side effect, though. The story - slight, but fun - is primarily interested in exploring a philosophical question about muses. Actually, it shares some of its concerns, its setting and even a James Joyce character with Anton Piatigorsky's Eternal Hydra, which played a hop, skip and jump down Bathurst Street at Factory Theatre last month - although this show is about appropriation of bodies rather than voice.
Mags, who eventually falls for and moves in with early abstract expressionist Chaim Soutine, believes she has special talents to inspire paintings that wouldn't exist without her. But Amelia, whose ego gets bigger with each brush stroke, suggests otherwise: If it wasn't Mags, it would be another model. Is there a difference between Mags and the cow carcasses Soutine paints? The question is left floating, and while I thought I knew the answer, now I'm not so sure.
- Written and performed by Maev Beaty and Erin Shields
- Directed by Andrea Donaldson
- At Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto
Montparnasse runs until April 2.