Flying too near the sun: the hunger for artistic inspiration in Dora Maar: the wicked one, a review

Daniela Vlaskalic in Dora Mar: the wicked one, GAL Productions with Hit & Myth. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls,

Images of fire, flames, burning, melting are everywhere in Dora Maar: the wicked one, a compelling new solo play by Beth Graham and Daniela Vlaskalic (The Drowning Girls, Comrades, Mules) presented by Workshop West Playwrights Theatre to launch their new season.

At its centre is an insight into the high price tag on artistic inspiration. We meet an artist who plays with fire to be near a heat source.

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The most famous artist in the world, both a heavy-hitter and a celebrity, is in the play. But Picasso isn’t onstage. The stage, bare save for two photography lights, belongs to Dora Maar, an innovative French photographer, 29 when she met the 55-year-old star painter, at the start of her own bright career. Ah, as she says at the outset, the moment “when life was a hydrogen balloon, going up and up and up.” 

Dora’s story loops back, again and again, to the Greek myth of Icarus, who leapt into the wild blue yonder on his wax and feather wings, flew too close to the sun, thrilled by its beauty and his own freedom — and plummeted into the sea.  

It’s not easy to capture the heat of inspiration onstage (as we know from the deadening experience watching characters with furrowed brows bent furiously over their computers or in front of their easels). In Dora Maar, best known since the 30s and 40s as Picasso’s lover, model, and muse, Graham and Vlaskalic have fashioned a character irresistibly attracted to the seductive energy of creation, in herself and in others. She expresses herself in playful, extravagant ways. “He burns so brightly,” she says of Picasso. “We drink to the agony of creation … we drink to the shape of my earlobe!” she laughs, reporting the high-wattage of her new relationship.  

The mercurial character we meet in Vlaskalic’s alert, charismatic performance has a kind of confident sparkle at the outset; she exults in her world — her friendships with the big shots of Surrealism, her experiments in marrying photography to Surrealism in original montages. Even her commercial photographs, for high-end fashion and booze clients, have bold weirdness to them: severed limbs, bizarre contortions, a ceiling that’s a floor, human chandelier, a Chanel-draped model with a cut-out star for a head. Dora wants to surprise, and she “likes being seen.” 

Daniela Vlaskalic in Dora Maar: the wicked one, GAL Productions with Hit & Myth. Photo supplied.

Additionally (and perhaps this is the photographer in her), she brings a leftist spirit to her aesthetic. She’s hip to the dark political drift to the right in the late ‘30s and feels the responsibility of expressing that in art. The play’s multi-faceted portrait of the artist — photographer, painter, documentarian, poet — is in sync with Picasso’s celebrated portraits of Dora Maar — all intersecting planes, fractures, distortions, in profile and full-face simultaneously. She seems to look in several directions at the same time, and inwardly too. So does this new play, that premiered this past spring at the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary.

One of the appeals of the play, and of Dora Maar as its amused observer, is the eloquent capture of a City of Light milieu and period that seems fantastical to us now. Paris in the ‘30s, “another party, another chateau,” more champagne, more sex, outrageous influencers who were actually talented, Man Ray emerging from a birdcage where he’s been “taking pictures of his penis … again!” An astonishing array of groundbreakers, where the answer to every question is “why don’t you ask Gertrude Stein?” There is, as per Dora Maar’s fascinating survey of a world soon to be at war, a lot to lose. Peter Moller’s evocative modernist soundscape, with its ominous undercurrents, glints with memories.

As Blake Brooker’s elegantly minimalist staging conveys, Dora Maar had found her light, in the cross-beam of two lamps. And her fall from sky into the darkness of a full-fledged breakdown, is a tragic one, as we see vividly in Vlaskalic’s performance. It’s an image captured by the stage’s sole embellishment — two birds, one with melted wings by T. Erin Gruber, and by the dramatic lighting designed by David Fraser. After a decade in which Dora Maar has supported, even propelled, Picasso through dangers and terrors of the Occupation, their passionate, tempestuous relationship (“beyond sex, beyond love, beyond comprehension”) stops.  

Having supplanted both his wife (the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova) and his mistress (Marie-Thérèse Walter, the mother of his daughter) as lover and muse, Dora, feisty and outspoken, is replaced, brutally, by a younger more compliant woman. The cruelty of an artist who needs fresh young blood for inspiration is shocking. Picasso the bull is a beast. And the insight into artistic creation and the magnetism of power, fame, and ego is tough-minded, to say the least.

The vivacious young artist, who revels in new ideas, seems almost physically reduced, to the vanishing point. Vlaskalic’s performance lingers in the mind.

The playwrights and director Blake Brooker talked to 12thnight in a PREVIEW. Check it out here.

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: through Nov. 6


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