Montparnasse, Theatre Passe Muraille, dir. Andrea Donaldson
Paris in the twenties was a beacon for bohemians willing to scrape away funds to travel there. For most, presumably, that scraping would continue on as they created new lives in the city: as butchers, waitresses, part-time teachers, and any other quotidian day-jobs they could find in order to find their creative muse.
Or they could make ends meet by being the muse itself. Montparnasse illustrates the lives of Canadian expats Margaret (Erin Shields) and Amelia (Maev Beaty) in Paris. The former is a relatively long-term resident in the city of lights, an energetic bon vivant who sells her nude form to the most germane artists of the day as if it was her personal tribute to the creative forces of the city. The latter, an artist in need of both inspiration and cash, comes to Paris and is welcomed by her friend into the oscillating life of modern art and nude-modelling, full of desperation and fulfillment in equal measure.
An evocation of Paris during the period of the génération au feu it most certainly is, seen best during the character’s transitional monologues that skip across time. At it’s best Montparnasse asks the audience to consider who truly creates art, whether it’s genesis lies in the creator or the subject, and whether the process of female objectification can occur even when it is another woman doing the objectifying. The ease with which Beaty and Shields don and abandon both clothes and supporting characters is praiseworthy. The level of physical exposure accepted as part of the acting process must have appealed to the actors, almost as if they were consciously channeling the curious mix of self-empowerment, enthusiasm, and vulnerability nude models must have experienced, especially under the gaze of the groundbreaking (and undoubtedly narcissistic) artists of the era.
It’s unfortunate that that vulnerability rarely manifests itself as emotional candidness or character development. The best moments are the brief monologues when Amelia, the more inhibited and less dilettantish of the pair, expresses her longing for connection and inspiration. Those moments are given short shrift to the name-dropping and allusions to the atmosphere and colour of Paris in the postbellum era. Whatever trajectory in their personal lives that projected these women to Paris in the first place goes unexplored. As their lives switch places, from struggling artists to ebullient creator, from muse to resentful object, Montparnasse mutes itself the moment the crescendo goes to its upswing.
This is not to say there was nothing compelling about the experience. The agility with which Shields and Beaty weave through characters with the bare minimum (pun unintended) of external props is captivating in its energy and verve. And when Amelia, newly confident in her art and vocal in her disdain for her model-friend inadvertently causes the destruction of her own canvas we see a perfect metaphor for the illusory and fragile nature of art: an empty stage, naked in its own way, a nudity more tragic than titillating.