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Miranda Edwards, left, plays a sexually adventurous Mary Frances and Shannon Taylor portrays a gullible, innocent Mary Anne in The Madonna Painter.

3.5 out of 4 stars

The Madonna Painter

  • Written by Michel Marc Bouchard
  • Translated by Linda Gaboriau
  • Directed by Eda Holmes
  • Starring Juan Chioran and Jenny Young
  • At Factory Theatre in Toronto

Factory Theatre has had its ups and downs over the years, but its 40th-anniversary season has so far proved its immeasurable worth to Toronto arts.

The first two shows on the bill have not just been the best new Canadian plays of the this season, but of last season too.

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Now, strictly speaking, neither was an entirely new play. Brad Fraser's True Love Lies made it debut in Manchester last winter, while Michel Marc Bouchard's The Madonna Painter had its first staging - translated from its original French into Italian - in Florence in 2003.

But this is its English-language premiere and better late than never. In fact, in this case, maybe better late than sooner because The Madonna Painter has now gained in topicality. The poetic play is set in a small French-Canadian village in 1918 as a serious flu epidemic spreads panic. Then, as now, fear led to paranoia and conspiracy theories: The villagers believe vengeful English-Canadian soldiers coming back from the war are purposefully transporting the flu from town to town as they search for deserters.

The village's handsome young priest (Marc Bendavid) has a peaceful plan to fight the Spanish flu, however: He wants to commission a triptych of the Virgin Mary to hang over the altar. It will act as an offering to God, but also lift the spirits of the villagers and give them hope.

After securing money from the town's creepy doctor (Brian Dooley), the priest hires roving Italian artist Alessandro (the always fabulous Juan Chioran) to paint the picture. Three of the town's various Marys compete to be his Madonna model: mystic washerwoman Mary Louise (Nicola Correia-Damude), who reads dirty bed sheets like tea leaves; the sexually adventurous Mary Frances (Miranda Edwards); and Mary Anne (Shannon Taylor), a gullible innocent who is in love with the young priest.

In the end, however, Alessandro chooses Mary of the Secrets (Jenny Young), an outcast who swallows people's deepest secrets when they are on their deathbed and then spits them out into a nearby barren field.

If this all sounds insufferably twee, it's not - at least, not for long.

There's a dark edge to The Madonna Painter that sharpens and sharpens until it slices you in half in the final terrifying scenes.

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The play examines art, religion and superstition and the fear and hope that lie behind them all. It paints a romantic picture and then slashes it to bits with brutal reality - which is similar to Alessandro's effect on the communities he invades like a foreign virus.

Bouchard calls his play "a collision of ecstasies, a bouquet of lies disguised as a fable" - and, really, I can't better that description. You will gather from that phrase, however, that Bouchard, like many of Quebec's playwrights, writes in heightened poetic language that is never fully comfortable in English translation.

There's a certain disconnect between the style English-Canadian actors and directors are most confident with - that tends to be some variety of naturalism - and the dialogue of a play like this that many are willing to write off only because they know they're peering through the linguistic looking glass.

Director Eda Holmes, designer Sue Lepage and the cast take us to the edge of the culture gap without quite bridging it the way, say, Richard Rose did with his recent production of Wajdi Mouawad's Scorched .

Even if it takes a while, we are eventually fully enveloped by Bouchard's Gothic vision of early-20th-century Quebec and his colourful cast of characters.

Young pulls at the heartstrings as a wounded young woman who finally opens up with tragic consequences, while Chioran's Alessandro seduces the audience as confidently and as cruelly as he does his models.

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Taylor pulls us into the odd, fantastical brain of Mary Anne, who is led to believe than a man's sex organ can morph into a beast or a priest.

Correia-Damude, too, is quite spellbinding, revealing the intimate and often quite poignant details of the town's nocturnal life as she washes them away.

As the third young woman, however, Edwards needs to be reined in a tad: She's a little too modern in her saucy body language and she shows us her agony without making us feel it.

As for the English version of the script, I sometimes wish I would see a different name than Linda Gaboriau on a translation of a French-Canadian play, but the truth is that when she's on her game - as she is here - she's undeniably the best.

If my anglo brain tried to wrestle Bouchard's poetry to the ground from time to time, my body successfully overrode it. Ultimately, I know I'm watching a unforgettable play when I walk out unable to form a coherent sentence, which I did here.

The Madonna Painter runs until Dec. 13.

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