Play focused on the life and muse of Henri Matisse comes to Downtown
By David Dixon
Fascinating plays and films about great artists often delve into their lives and are able to make audiences feel connected to these geniuses on a personal level.
A new drama about Henri Matisse, “The Color of Light,” is soon to premiere at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center. Presented by Vantage Theatre in association with Talent To aMuse, the show dramatizes an unconventional and now-legendary friendship.
In the 1940’s Matisse (portrayed by O.P. Hadlock), then an atheist, hired Monique Bourgeois (Cecily Keppel) as his night nurse. After she stopped taking care of the artist, Bourgeois chose to live her life as a nun, with the name of Sister Jacques-Marie.
Their ongoing relationship was the inspiration for Matisse’s masterpiece, the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, (the Chapel of the Rosary).
Playwright Jesse Kornbluth became invested in this real tale after reading an article that referenced the pair. Since Kornbluth found the actual facts to be so impactful, he said he wanted to take as few liberties as possible while writing the script.
“Sixty percent of the dialogue appeared in respectable criticism and my script is about 90 percent accurate,” he said.
While Kornbluth has been a writer for years, “The Color of Light” is his first theatrical script. One of his major goals with the play is to have theatergoers identify with the people at the center of the narrative.
“I want them to feel what it’s like to be a poor nursing student,” he said. “I also want them to understand how someone can be one of the most famous artists and still be alone.”
The main reason why Artistic Director Robert Salerno chose to be involved with the production was due to Kornbluth’s involvement with the play. After reading the script for himself, he knew the unique narrative was worth telling.
When asked which of Matisse’s works he enjoyed the most, Salerno revealed he appreciates everything that the artist created.
“What really stands out to me is the feeling I get from his use of color and form,” Salerno said. “It’s really remarkable.”
Even before being cast as Matisse, Hadlock was a big fan of the painter’s work.
“I come from a family of artists and I knew a little bit about him beforehand,” he said. “He’s one of my favorite impressionists.”
As much as he already knew and respected about Matisse, Hadlock said he still learned a lot portraying him on stage.
“I wasn’t aware that he was a tormented man,” he said. “At the same time, out of that torment he created fearfulness.”
Matisse wasn’t always the most joyful person to be around, and Kornbluth knows that humor keeps things from feeling too heavy, so without ignoring the serious elements of the story, he said his hope was to create an experience that was entertaining and even fun.
While Matisse may be the focus of the play, the theatrical event does go into depth into Bourgeois’ life. To Kornbluth, Bourgeois is as important as Matisse to the events that happen in the story.
“She is the driver of everything,” he said. “All the changes in his character come from who she is as a person. She’s his muse and then some.”
Salerno said he appreciates the way that Bourgeois develops over the course of the staging.
“She starts out shy and awkward,” he said. “By the end of her time with him, she developed into someone more at ease with herself and others.”
After the world premiere run in San Diego, Kornbluth has plans for the future of “The Color of Light.” There will be a version at the Schoolhouse Theater & Arts Center in Westchester, New York, next fall.
Kornbluth’s drama seems destined to be as educational as it is impactful. His three-dimensional treatment of Matisse means that the tale won’t just be for art aficionados.
—David Dixon is a freelance arts and entertainment writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.