A MODEL FOR MATISSE
by Barbara F. Freed and
I've told the story many times how this project evolved. In 2010, I saw the 2003 documentary, A MODEL FOR MATISSE written and directed by Barbara F. Freed. Instantly, I told myself: "Self, there's a play here." And started working on a structure for it, and starting to get in touch with Professor Freed.
But before I did, I read about a new movie going into production, MASTERPIECE, with Al Pacino as Matisse, and knew right away, I won't be able to touch this. Cut to 2018. Looking over old notes, I rediscovered A MODEL FOR MATISSE. The Pacino movie had never been done, and looked like it wasn't on anyone's slate. So at that point, I contacted Barbara Freed, looking to license rights to adapt the doc into a play. After talking and meeting with Barbara, it turned into a collaboration. She was the co-writer for the script, rep to the Matisse estate and the licensing of his work for the play (her film being the source for many of the images used in Michael B. Perkins evocative video design), and adviser on all things Matisse and Soeur Jacques.
We partnered on the script and soon started planning a St. Louis production. I think first on board was Michael Perkins, because I knew the play needed his visual support. Thinking about actresses came early, understanding the challenging role Soeur Jacques would be - not only tracing her evolution but serving as de facto narrator/storyteller for the show. And top of mind early was Rachel Hanks. I'd worked with her in backstage roles on productions and admired her onstage work, but hadn't worked with her before. Fortunately, she was able to come on board.
Midnight grabbed Ellie Schwetye at just the right juncture in her busy theatre calendar, and she came aboard to guide the show brilliantly right up to the finish line, not only charting the story, but providing the important soundtrack.
Tony Anselmo agreed to do lights (his third Midnight show in a row), Liz Henning joined the group to provide her usual expert costumes, and stage manager Ashley Bauman and Assistant Director Lex Ronan rounded out the crew.
This labor of love project turned out to be a lovely theatre experience. Good crowds came to see us, and I think they got what we were trying to do.
For me, this story just had to be told. The collaboration between these two unlikely comrades inspired me - one young, one old; one a soohisticated world figure, one a neophyte country girl; one atheist, one deeply religious;. Somehow, somewhere, there as spark, a real chemistry that allowed them to see and understand things together. Their personalities, I think, just fit like gloves. I love stories like this, rivals or very unlikely strangers becoming friends, partners. And the result of this partnership - the magnificent Vence Chapel - is a brick-and-mortar living example of the spirit these two shared, and shared with the world.
Model for Matisse at Midnight Company by Steve Callahan
September 16, 2019
Joe Hanrahan and his Midnight Company are presenting A Model for Matisse. It's the premiere of a new work about the great artist and the unusual relationship that led to his masterpiece in the last years of his life--the wonderful Chapel of the Rosary in the small town of Vence on the French Riviera.
Henri Matisse had lived near Nice for decades. In 1941, when he was 72, a cancer operation left him bedridden. He advertised for "a young and pretty night nurse" to tend to him-and Monique Bourgeois came into his life. Matisse asked her opinion of one of his paintings. She replied, "I like the colors a lot, but the lines . . . not so much." Her honesty delighted him. Over the next several years Monique became his companion, friend, model, and indeed student, for she had artistic talent and aspiration of her own.
Joe Hanrahan portrays Matisse. It's the oldest role I've seen him do, and he's padded up to the elderly Matisse's portly dimensions, but there's still the twinkle and charm that characterize this actor. And Rachel Hanks, a familiar presence on St. Louis stages, gives I think the best performance I've seen from her. This is perhaps odd, because Monique is not a dramatic or theatrical type at all; she's an innocent, cheerful young woman. But Miss Hanks simply glows with youth and honesty; her laugh is so easy and natural.
The two bond deeply despite the fact that Matisse is an atheist and Monique a devout Catholic. Their gentle flirtation is that of a grandfather and granddaughter.
The friends part when Matisse's regular nurse returns, but fate brings them together again a few years later. He moves to the small village of Vence to avoid the risk of coastal bombing--and finds that Monique is recovering from tuberculosis in a Dominican convent just across the street. The friendship is rekindled. She does a bit more modelling. But then Monique finds herself called to become a nun and (over Matisse's strong objection) she joins the convent, thus ending her daily contact with her good friend. She is now Sr. Jacques Marie.
Later as plans for a chapel are begun Sr. Jacques' friendship with the great artist draws him enthusiastically into the project. The Mother Superior is vehemently opposed to the idea: "A chapel designed by an atheist who paints nudes?!! Never!" It's a long and difficult political struggle, but in the end art and love win out.
Director Ellie Schwetye has put together many beauties in this production. She herself designed the lovely sound plot - a little Satie, some Fauré , a touch of Ravel, playing unobtrusively under the dialogue like a movie score. The quite gorgeous video design is by Michael B. Perkins: a Riviera view from Matisse's studio, a profusion of flowers, and of course much of the art he creates for the chapel. The excellent costumes are by Liz Henning. (Her angel-white habit makes Sr. Jacques a very icon--and it becomes a canvas to receive the colored light from the chapel's windows.)
The script is based on a 2003 documentary film by Barbara F. Freed, who co-authored this adaptation with Hanranan. It's charming, but it really never quite makes the step from documentary to drama. Monique is both character and narrator, and some of her early speeches are pretty bald exposition--like a documentary voice-over. A time or two, as when Church officials are introduced with photos, the tone almost becomes that of a slide-show.
We meet these two singular people, we learn some of Matisse's artistic philosophy and of his long friendship with Picasso, whom he met at Gertrude Stein's famous salons. We are told of the fierce conflict with the Mother Superior--but this conflict is not seen, it is merely described (as in Greek drama, where all the slaughter happens off-stage and is recounted by a Messenger).
There are missing persons whose live presence would help attain a sense of drama. I know there are quite practical reasons for keeping a cast small, but the Mother Superior deserves a live scene. And poor Lydia Delectorskaya, Matisse's long-time secretary and household manager. An impoverished, orphaned Russian emigr'e, she had, in her youth, modeled for Matisse ("The Pink Nude" and others). Matisse's wife suspected an affair; this led to a separation and to Lydia's attempted suicide; but Lydia remained in his employ to the end. The stuff of drama, no? And yet she is denied the stage. What did she think of Monique?
"A Model for Matisse", now playing at the .ZACK, is a lovely story of a gentle relationship and of the genesis of an artistic masterpiece.
St Louis Eats and Drinks
A Model for Matisse
September 16, 2019
In a small town in the hills above the Mediterranean in 1943, the artist Henri Matisse moved to the villa La Reve. Reve translates as “dream”, and it was his way of moving further away from the difficulties of war. He had refused to leave France when war broke out – his son was an art dealer in New York City – but had been living in Nice until this move. The south of France was mostly under the collaborationist Vichy government, but Nice was so close to the Italian boarder, 20 miles or so, that the residents felt, quite correctly, that the Italians would come in to “maintain order”. Late in 1942, they did, and soon thereafter Matisse moved to the villa in the small perched village of Vence.
Matisse’s health was not good. He had had surgery for what we are told was abdominal cancer in 1941, when he was 71. And so begins the story of A Model for Matisse, from The Midnight Company. He hired a young woman as a night nurse, Monique Bourgeois. When he was younger, Matisse was something of a ladies’ man, although nothing on the order of his friend and rival Pablo Picasso. But it appears that age or health or perhaps his conscience, had quenched that thirst. He and Monique developed a friendship. As he recovered, he asked her to model for him, and she did for a while, then went on with her life..
A few years later, she developed tuberculosis. Sent to recover at a Dominican convent in Vence, she discovered her former employer living across the road and they resumed the friendship. But after a while, to the immense dismay of Matisse, she decided to become a nun. Fate, showing an uncommon bit of humor, brought her back to the convent a few years later, after she’d taken vows.
Soeur (Sister) Jacques-Marie, as Monique now was, mentioned in conversation with Matisse that the convent’s chapel was actually a leaky garage. And so a great project was born. He and a monk interested in architecture and recovering at the convent designed a chapel. Matisse set to work creating its appearance both interior and exterior. The result is his masterwork..
There was much furor, both within the convent and in the greater world about the chapel. Matisse, said the mother superior, was not sufficiently moral to create a chapel. The French media implied that the relationship between the two was a romantic one, or had been at some point in the past. But the chapel was built, is still there, and is, I promise you, utterly glorious to visit, a bijou of a place.
This is, we are told, a world premiere of the play, taken from the documentary film of the same name written and directed by Barbara F. Freed. Freed and Joe Hanrahan collaborated on the play’s script. Hanrahan is at his best playing Matisse, sometimes bristly and sometimes with a twinkle in his eye, completely submersing himself in the character. Rachel Hanks is Monique/Soeur Jacques-Marie, innocent in the way that is immersed in the time period and the very religious. It’s clearly a directorial choice from Ellie Schwetye to keep her so controlled most of the time, even relating her clashes with the mother superior with calm, although her re-telling of the interview with the reporter from Paris-Match is quite, quite amusing.
Particular applause to Michael B. Perkins’ video design, which is so important here to show us some of why this is such a beautiful place. Liz Henning created the costume design, particularly relevant in a play about art.
Fascinating and at times breathtaking. And if it’s a consideration, no intermission.
St Louis Post-Dispatch
Midnight Co.'s 'A Model for Matisse' is a charming portrait by Calvin Wilson
September 16, 2019
Some of the most memorable plays of recent decades have been what’s known as two-handers — pieces that focus on a pair of actors. Among the more notable are Terrence McNally’s “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” (which was recently revived on Broadway in a production starring Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon) and Lanford Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Talley’s Folly.”
“A Model of Matisse,” a comedy-drama running through Saturday in a Midnight Co. production, is a worthy addition to the genre. Co-written by Barbara F. Freed and Joe Hanrahan, the play is based on Freed’s 2006 documentary about 20th-century painter Henri Matisse and a woman with whom he enjoyed a platonic bond.
Monique Bourgeois (Rachel Hanks) and Matisse (Hanrahan) meet when she answers his ad for a “young and pretty night nurse.” But it’s not long before she becomes his model, as well as a friend and confidante..
Matisse is impressed with Monique’s taste and intelligence, but he’s taken aback when she becomes a nun called Sister Jacques-Marie. Still, their relationship survives — and sets the stage for the artist to embark on one of his most acclaimed projects: the Chapel of the Rosary in the south of France.
“A Model for Matisse” is best appreciated as a portrait of an unlikely but auspicious friendship. Director and sound designer Ellie Schwetye delivers an intimate experience that gets to the heart of humanity..
Hanrahan wears the role of Matisse like a tattered but cherished smock, embodying the painter as world-weary but not without humor. And Hanks appealingly traces the arc of her character’s evolution. Together, they conjure a chemistry that more than compensates for the play’s occasional wordiness.
“A Model for Matisse” is the kind of production at which the Midnight Co. excels.
'A Model for Matisse' Tells Intriguing Story Behind Artist's 'Masterpiece' by Marc Bretz
September 18, 2019
Story: In 1941, Modernist artist Henri Matisse advertises for a “young and pretty night nurse” to help care for him at his home in Nice, France. A nursing student and amateur artist named Monique Bourgeois responds to the ad and, despite thinking she is unattractive, is hired immediately by the painter.
Matisse is inspired by Monique’s beauty to create several paintings over the next few years. He is surprised when she tells him in 1944 that she has decided to enter the Dominican order of nuns and is changing her name to Soeur Jacques-Marie. As fate would have it, she remains geographically close to Matisse and they continue their friendly, platonic relationship.
In the late 1940s, Sister Jacques shows Matisse a painting she has created and he tells her that it should be made into stained glass and “placed in your chapel.” When he learns that the nuns ‘chapel’ is an old garage, the aged artist is determined to design them a new chapel.
Over the next few years, Matisse works with architect Auguste Perret, a pioneer of reinforced concrete, to complete what Matisse considered to be his life’s masterpiece, the revolutionary Chapel of the Rosary in the French village of Vence, just outside Nice. In Matisse's opinion, Sister Jacques was the “true initiator” of the magnificent structure.
Highlights: Midnight Company artistic director Joe Hanrahan has collaborated with French studies scholar Barbara F. Freed on this fact-based dramatization about the unusual and long-lasting friendship between a world-famous artist and a nun of quiet strength in this delightful world premiere presentation.
Other Info: Hanrahan first became aware of the story in 2010 when he saw the 2003 documentary, A Model for Matisse, which was written and directed by Freed. She in turn had based her work on Sister Jacques’ book, Henri Matisse: The Vence Chapel.
Freed is a retired professor of French Studies at Carnegie Mellon University, where she focused on cultural history, particularly 20th century artists in southern France and research in Second Language Acquisition.
Hanrahan thought that the story and documentary could be made into a play, and he was right. This 75-minute, one-act story tells the story of the relationship between the world-famous artist and a self-effacing nun with humor and grace, smoothly setting the stage with simple, direct background information to depict the admiration these two souls had for each other.
The cluttered set features a bed at stage left for the convalescing Matisse amid the creative debris of his artistry. What gives the show additional inspiration is Michael Perkins’ expertly packaged video design, which showcases a plethora of Matisse’s visual masterpieces, including several paintings of Monique as well as vistas of southern France and the resplendent chapel itself.
Director Ellie Schwetye maintains a physical distance between the two protagonists on the stage, with Rachel Hanks as Sister Jacques usually at stage right and Hanrahan as the accomplished artist at stage left, save for a modest embrace or kiss here and there. Schwetye’s pace flows smoothly throughout, although occasionally one notices when dialogue gets a bit too ‘cute,’ reminding the audience that this is a G-rated script.
Liz Henning’s costume design accentuates Monique’s modesty as well as the mandatory Dominican wardrobe of Sister Jacques, while Hanrahan is padded to simulate the dumpy Matisse physique in all its bohemian splendor. Schwetye adds to the enchantment with her complementary sound design, while Tony Anselmo’s lighting brings additional perspective to both the interplay between the two characters and the impressive Matisse pieces.
Hanks brings out the warmth and congeniality of Monique and Sister Jacques, showing how the woman’s spirit and heart matched her body with their inner beauty. She is quietly firm in her beliefs and seems oblivious to various snide attacks about her and the older artist made by the media, the Roman Catholic Church and even Matisse's colleague, Pablo Picasso.
As Matisse, Hanrahan captures the famous and prolific artist’s indefatigable approach to his work, his constant re-invention and his pioneering creativity. He also shows how the sometimes stubborn painter acquiesced to his model’s wishes and eventually took her own creation to make it the centerpiece of what he considered to be his own masterpiece, with steady determination if not necessarily faith.
A Model for Matisse tells a true and fascinating story in intriguing fashion, injecting theatrical life into the artistic monument known as the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France. You may not be able to see the real thing, but this amiable adaptation is a worthy substitute.
'A Model for Matisse' paints a lovely portrait of art, friendship and conversation by Tina Farmer
September 20, 2019
The Midnight Company presents the world premier of “A Model for Matisse,” a gentle, uplifting story about Henri Matisse and his model, friend and eventual collaborator Sister Jacques-Marie, whom he first met when she was a nursing student named Monique Bourgeois. The engaging story is told through a mix of conversation and narrated history that moves along like a languid stroll through the shared memories of two very close friends.
After treatment for a stomach issue, the artist’s assistant posts an ad seeking a night nurse to help Matisse during his recovery. The almost penniless Bourgeois responds, even though the ad specifies Matisse is seeking an “attractive young nurse” and she feels the only qualification she meets is youth. Bourgeois also isn’t aware of Matisse or his already considerable fame and, when he shows her his work, she’s more impressed by his use of color than his ability to draw. Matisse finds her guileless honesty refreshing.
One equal footing and with practical realities their common reference, the two begin a relationship that stretches through the end of the painter’s life, weathering war, distance and Bourgeois becoming a nun. The friendship even extends to their working together to build the modernistic Chapel at Saint Paul de Vence, which Matisse considered the culmination and synthesis of his artistic career. Though their friendship was never sexual, it is clear from the script, written by Barbara F. Freed and Joe Hanrahan, who also portrays Matisse, that the two had deep mutual respect and an intimate connection.
Hanrahan brings a glib and curious tone to his performance as the somewhat enigmatic artist. Even when Matisse pontificates on his work or the value and purpose of art he does so with a casual, matter of fact air that’s approachable and grounded in practice. Rachel Hanks is as convincing as the young Bourgeois, sprinkling in wry comments and observations with girlish enthusiasm, as she is as the devoted and reverent Sister Jacques-Marie. The audience knows less about the sister, but Hanks and director Ellie Schwetye ensure she feels as familiar and real as the more recognizable painter. The scenes where the two discuss their beliefs and aesthetics are among the most lively and contextually relevant of the show.
Matisse and his opinions are fully formed by the time the two meet. As a 20th century artist and celebrity, he was celebrated during his life and much of his habits and personality are known to contemporary audiences. Though Sister Jacques-Marie achieved some attention because of the Chapel, her life was considerably more private. Hanks and Schwetye ensure that we see the woman behind the character, enabling us to notice her maturity and change as well as the ways she is influenced by and concerned for Matisse.
Schwetye, who contributes the sound design in addition to the direction, lighting designer Tony Anselmo and costumer Liz Henning define the setting and era admirably. Video designer Michael B. Perkins adds layers of historic reference and visual interest with his projections. Perkins’ background as an educator takes over his creative impulses at times, but script seems to provide that direction, making it difficult to fault Perkins, and his selected images are pleasing and saturated with color and warmth.
Though quite entertaining, the play plods into the weighty territory of historical lecture a bit too much, causing the storytelling to falter just a bit. Additionally, Hanrahan has a habit of telegraphing when he’s about to quote one of Matisse’s many well-known phrases. Even with those quibbles, “A Model for Matisse,” continuing through September 21, features well-connected and believable characters telling a genuinely fascinating and surprisingly rich story of a most unlikely friendship.
Two On The Aisle
'A Model for Matisse @ The Midnight Company
by Gerry Kowarsky
September 26, 2019
Snoops Theatre Thoughts
Midnight Company's "Judgement At Nuremberg" Makes a Memorable impression at the Missouri History Museum by Michelle Kenyon
September 27, 2019
Joe Hanrahan’s Midnight Company has been known mostly for its one-man shows starring Hanrahan, although occasionally they have done some works with two or more performers. The company’s latest offering, A Model For Matisse, signifies a collaboration for Hanrahan in more ways than one, since he is not only the co-star but also the co-writer of the piece. It’s a fact-based exploration of an important relationship in the life of a well-known 20th Century artist, as well as other intriguing issues that arise from that friendship. It’s a well-cast production and a well-chosen subject, providing not just entertainment but also education for its audiences..
According to the press materials for the show, Hanrahan sought to create this play after seeing a documentary of the same name that was written and directed by Barbara F. Freed. After contacting Freed to get permission to adapt the film, Hanrahan not only got the rights; he ended up collaborating with Freed on the script, which has now had its world premiere with this production. It tells the story of the later years of famed French artist Henri Matisse (Hanrahan), and his significant friendship with the young nursing student Monique Bourgeois (Rachel Hanks), who modeled for several of his paintings and later joined a Dominican order of nuns and became Soeur Jacques-Marie. The play also covers the design and construction of the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France, for Soeur Jacques-Marie’s order. The sister and the artist worked together on the project, with the sister serving as a significant consultant and source of inspiration. The story shows the development of the relationship and the conflict between both characters’ different outlooks on life, which serves as reflection of the overall conflict between the influences of traditional religious views and the increasing influences of modernism in Western culture in the mid-20th Century.
The show is a fascinating portrayal of two contrasting characters and the close bond they form. It also serves to highlight the work of Matisse for those for whom the artist’s work–and especially his later work–isn’t especially familiar. The casting is ideal, with Hanrahan bringing a warmth and thoughtfulness to his role as the ailing, occasionally disillusioned but increasingly determined Matisse, and Hanks bringing likable energy to her role and also providing compelling narration to the story as it unfolds. Their story is fascinating and informative, aided by an excellent technical production including stellar projection design by Michael B. Perkins, as well as excellent costumes by Liz Henning and sound design by director Ellie Schwetye, and evocative lighting by Tony Anselmo. Schwetye’s staging is well-paced and inventive, as well, making for a memorable, informative and relatable production.
Although I had heard of Henri Matisse before seeing this show, I didn’t know this particular story, and I suspect a lot of people seeing this play would be in the same position. This show, with an intelligent and lively script from Freed and Hanrahan, sheds light on a perhaps less-known aspect of the artist’s life, bringing to light an important friendship that had a profound influence on him. These two characters are brought to life with clarity by the show’s ideally cast lead performers, providing a fascinating look at art, artists, European life in the mid-20th Century, and more.