By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In the solo play that launches the Workshop West Playwrights Theatre season Thursday you’ll meet a remarkable artist, a multi-media groundbreaker in the ‘30s and ‘40s. She was a cutting edge photographer with commercial cred and a unique vision, an accomplished painter, a leftist political activist, a poet.
You might not know her name.
In a Paris cafe in 1935, Dora Maar met the most famous artist in the world, Pablo Picasso, and fell in love. And both their lives changed.
In Dora Maar: the wicked one, by the playwriting duo of Beth Graham and Daniela Vlaskalic (The Drowning Girls, Comrades, Mules), the woman herself, played by Vlaskalic, talks to us. The production, the work of the playwrights’ GAL Productions and Calgary’s Hit & Myth, is directed by Blake Brooker, a playwright of note himself and the co-founder of the zestfully experimental performance theatre company One Yellow Rabbit. The three made time to chat on Zoom on a break from rehearsals in Calgary.
The play, which premiered at the delayed spring edition of the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary, isn’t the first time Graham and Vlaskalic have put Dora Maar onstage. She was one of the five talking paintings in The Last Train (Shadow Theatre, 2003), a Nazi train filled with looted “degenerate art” including Picasso’s fractured portraits of his lover and muse, and bound for possible oblivion.
“We weren’t done with her,” says Graham of their undimmed attraction to their subject. Dora Maar “is one of those artists.… We were intrigued by her sensibility, her photos and her art work” — her paintings in a striking variety of styles, photographs that marry the eye of the camera to Surrealism. “One of the few women working in that medium at all, she bridged the two worlds and she was commercially successful. Such an interesting woman.… We wanted to crawl into that mind, that world. And we’d just scratched the surface.”
What interested the playwrights, too, was “how that vibrant, exciting new artist disappeared,” says Vlaskalic. “If people know her at all, it’s for The Weeping Woman and other multi-angled faces in Picasso paintings. But they don’t anything about the woman.” Only in the last few years, as she notes — a 2019 exhibition at the the Pompidou in Paris and the Tate Modern in London — has Dora Maar’s independent profile as an artist has started to be visible on the international stage.
Ah yes, a liaison with Picasso that has left him with Maar’s photo-documentation of his masterwork Guernica and her with the label ‘muse’. Graham, whose play Weasel premiered at Studio Theatre two weeks ago, says “one of the things that interested us was her relationship with fame…. Picasso was already famous when she met him and entered into that relationship. She already had this artistic identity; how does it bump up against someone that famous? How does she navigate that? Such an interesting thing to explore.”
“Who’s the most famous and powerful artist in the world now?” Brooker wonders. The answer isn’t obvious. “Who’s the Picasso … Banksy? Jeff Koons?” Drake maybe? “But Picasso and Maar were in the same medium, and that’s different,” as Graham points out.
“They deal with this (question of fame) in such a fascinating way,” says Brooker of the playwrights. “Original, idiosyncratic, very pleasing.” The setting, too, 1935 to 1945 in Paris, is resonant. “A time of great upheaval in the Western world… And here we are, finding ourselves back at a moment, or series of moments, of great upheaval. The terms and conditions of this play cleave into notions of artistic creation, censorship, warfare, occupation, the rising right….”
Ring any bells? The leitmotif of the play, as Brooker puts it, is the Spanish Civil War, and the fit with the moment, including the brutality in Ukraine, is unmistakeable. “Part of the beauty of Dora Maar,” says Graham, “was the way her art work was responding to the politics, the rising fascism, of the time.”
“These guys,” he says affectionately of Graham and Vlaskalic, “have caught this. And I think it’s lightning in a bottle… not least of which is finding a personality as magnetic, as storytelling-worthy, as Dora Maar.”
“So many dramatic angles,” he says of the multiple facets of Dora Maar’s story. “The City of Light in black-out, the pressure-cooker of Occupation….And everything about her story is so sexy. An incredible artist, friends with all the cool Surrealists (like) Man Ray and Marcel Duchamps. Love, heartbreak, obsession.… A snapshot of 10 years in 78 minutes! It deserves a mini-series.” Vlaskalic laughs and nods. “A lot does happen within the world and within the art.”
Vlaskalic, whose play Sleight of Mind, premiered this month at Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops, explains that Dora Maar: The Wicked One is the joint cross-country work of the pandemic. “A Zoom-created play I guess,” originally scheduled for the Rodeo’s original January slot then delayed for COVIDian reasons till May. She and Graham, the one Toronto-based and the other in Edmonton, enlisted One Yellow Rabbit’s Brooker, who has a long and distinguished history with new plays. He’d directed a version of The Drowning Girls for Vertigo Theatre. He’d directed Vlaskalic in Karen Hines’ Drama: Pilot Episode.
“He’s really pushed us to find the voice of the piece,” says Graham, “the voice of the character and what we want for our voice within the piece.”
For his part, Brooker says “I consider these two among the finest dramatists on the scene in Canada … an almost undiscovered treasure of beautiful writing and ideas. And I also consider them to be very intuitive and accurate with the zeitgeist.”
“This play comes to grips with really serious notions around a creative life, and also the ongoing, amazing danse macabre, the crazy energy between men and women that drives the world…. There is nothing more interesting than observing another human being concentrating and going through problems. We love to watch the concentrated presence on stage.”
Dora Maar: the wicked one
Theatre: GAL Productions with Hit & Myth, presented by Workshop West Playwrights Theatre
Written by: Beth Graham and Daniela Vlaskalic
Directed by: Blake Brooker
Starring: Daniela Vlaskalic
Where: The Gateway Theatre, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: Thursday through Nov. 6