Ashland playwright Molly Best Tinsley says that when she visited the exhibit "French Painting in the Age of Madame Pompadour" at the Portland Art Museum in 2009, she was fascinated by what appeared to be lurking beneath the surface of the lush portraits.
"Along with the sensuality, I was struck that the subjects of all the portraits seem to be holding secrets," Tinsley says. "I wanted to turn history inside out, to understand the people beneath the lavish costumes."
She wrote a play about the mysterious Madame de Pompadour, influential mistress to King Louis XV of France.
"Pompadour," Tinsley's one-woman play, is receiving its debut production by Ashland Contemporary Theatre. ACT Artistic Director Jeannine Grizzard portrays Pompadour.
Tinsley has constructed a nonlinear memoir. We meet Pompadour as she lies dying in her boudoir at Versailles. Gone are the days when an enamored king would creep down the secret staircase that linked his apartments to hers. For 20 years, and long after their sexual intimacy ceased, Pompadour was Louis' closest friend and adviser. She controlled all political appointments, patronage and even diplomatic policy. Now the king has fallen in love with a much younger woman and his courtiers are taking advantage of Pompadour's age and ill health to remove her from court and end her influence. Her moment of weakness, a confrontation with the new mistress, may have finally alienated her from the king.
Pompadour knows she is dying but she wants the king to remember the emotional and intellectual intimacy they shared and the accomplishments she achieved for his glory and the glory of France. She is writing — in her imagination — a play to be performed for him. What we see on stage is her projection of what is on the page.
Grizzard has to portray Pompadour from a young child through adolescence, early womanhood and into middle age. (Pompadour died at age 41.) She also has to portray the other side of conversations Pompadour has with her mother, her mentoring "uncles," her doctor and her priest, not to mention that less-than-successful confrontation with her rival.
It is more than two hours of nonstop dialogue for Grizzard, alone up there on the stage, alternating between the present and the past. Director Peggy Rubin and Grizzard have worked together to create enough movement onstage that "Pompadour" rarely becomes static.
That Grizzard manages to maintain the spell, keeping us focused on Pompadour's emotional journey, is no small feat. Tinsley's play artfully melds the telling of historical fact with her character's revelations of inner fear, pain and devastating love. Pompadour explains that she has always worn a serene mask, that any perceivable chink in her façade would have been fatal. This reminiscence is her chance to reveal what could not have been expressed before.
Tinsley's meticulously crafted play could be tighter, with some scenes shorter to carry more punch. But it's hard to know where to edit a dramatic arc until one sees it performed on stage.
The production values of "Pompadour" are impressive in their detail, given a small venue and Grizzard's passion for historical accuracy. Grizzard designed the lush set, an 18th century boudoir complete with chaise longue, vanity table, miniature portraits, even down to details such as jewelry and hand mirrors. Costumes by Karen Douglas lovingly recreate period detail through fabric and construction.
"Pompadour" plays at 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 3 at the Ashland Community Center, 59 Winburn Way. Regular admission is $15 with seniors/students at $12. Tickets can be purchased at Paddington Station in Ashland and Grocery Outlet in Medford as well as online at www.ashlandcontemporarytheatre.org or by calling 541-646-2971.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.