(619) 505-7777

Theater Review: “The Color of Light”

“The Color of Light” plays through February 3, 2018, at the Tenth Avenue Art Center, 930 Tenth Avenue, downtown.
Photo credit:
Marti Kranzberg

Master colorist Henri Matisse is probably best known as a painter and prime mover of the Fauvists (“wild beasts”), the early 20th-century art movement that produced wildly colorful canvasses.

But he also branched out into printmaking and sculpture. And late in life, when illness kept him from standing to paint, he took up the colorful paper cut-outs for which he is also renowned.

But the story of how this lifelong atheist came to design the Chapel of the Rosary in southern France – along with the ceramic murals, stained glass windows and other art pieces for the chapel – is little known.

Playwright Jesse Kornbluth tells the fascinating story in “The Color of Light,” and Vantage Theatre, in association with Talent to aMuse, present its world premiere through Feb. 3 at the Tenth Avenue Art Center.

The story starts in Matisse’s living room in Nice in September 1942. The artist, now 73, is recovering from serious duodenal surgery and needs a nurse in addition to housekeeper Lydia (Bobbie Helland), who has been with Matisse for years and essentially runs his life.

When young student nurse Monique Bourgeois (Cecily Keppel), 21 and in need of a job, arrives and mentions that she too has dabbled in art, she’s hired (despite Lydia’s reservations). Thus begins an artistic/emotional friendship that will last the rest of Matisse’s life.

He will teach her to draw, and they will discuss the nature of art, inspiration, and purpose. 

He tells her that art is about feeling – in fact, “nothing else” – and that the question to ask about a piece of art is not how it looks but how (and what) it makes you feel. 

Monique is Catholic and views art as the result of divine inspiration. “You have never once felt His grace?” she asks.

“I have spent my life looking for my own,” he replies.

Nurse and patient, teacher and student – these two friends with divergent views offer intellectual food for thought and evidence of profound human connection. It’s a powerful combination.

But the pull of the Church is strong, and one day – much to Matisse’s annoyance – Monique leaves to join a convent. Lydia is somewhat relieved, but not so Matisse.

A famous visitor makes several welcome appearances: Matisse’s friend Pablo Picasso (James Steinberg, in the “Picasso outfit” of a widely striped shirt and beret), who has heard about Matisse’s health problems and comes down from Paris to see his old friend and find out how he really is.

One day Monique returns. She is now Sister Jacques-Marie, come not just to say hello to her friend but with a commission: she’d like Matisse to paint a stained glass window to put in the garage used by the nuns as a chapel.

Matisse sees the irony but agrees to design a new chapel as well. This will become the lovely and most unusual Chapelle du Rosaire, which sits on a hill in Vence, north of Nice.

With “help” from bumbling priest Rayssiguier (Terence Burke), who claims “some training” in architecture but really seems to have a bad case of idol worship, the chapel takes shape.

Of course, Matisse tangles with the Mother Superior (Judy Catlin), who doesn’t want atheist hands anywhere near “her” church, but she will lose this battle, and soon the nuns will have a new chapel with stunningly colorful stained glass windows, ceramic murals and other art pieces, which now draws a steady stream of tourists.

A multi-talented group is responsible for this engaging show. Director Robert Salerno also designed the sound and excellent video projections. O.P. Hadlock both plays the artist; and designed the versatile set.

Salerno has a fine cast. Hadlock’s Matisse and Keppel’s Monique play off each other beautifully, equally committed to different beliefs and goals but each willing to respect the other’s choices.

Bobbie Helland is excellent as Lydia and scores more points with her expressions, gestures, and carriage than with her words. 

Catlin is fine as the stereotypical Mother Superior. Burke amuses as the clumsy priest Rayssiguier, though it isn’t entirely clear what dramatic purpose the character serves. 

Bravo to Kornbluth, Vantage, Talent to aMuse and all involved in telling this engaging story. Better get your tickets now: it closes on Feb. 3.

The details

“The Color of Light” plays through February 3, 2018, at the Tenth Avenue Art Center, 930 Tenth Avenue, downtown.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 4 pm

Tickets: 619-940-6813 or www.vantagetheatre.com