Writer Jesse Kornbluth Explores The Color of Lightby Pat Launer January 3, 2018
A Jew, an atheist and a nun. Sounds like the start of a joke. But it’s serious artistic business.
The Jew is prolific New York-based writer Jesse Kornbluth. The atheist is post-impressionist painter Henri Matisse. And the nun… well, that’s the story of Jesse’s first play, “The Color of Light,” having its world premiere in San Diego at Vantage Theatre.
In his long and impressive career, Jesse, a Magna cum Laude graduate of Harvard, has written books about Andy Warhol, Michael Milken, Michael Jordan, Kelsey Grammer and Twyla Tharp. He’s been a contributing editor at magazines such as New York Magazine, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest and the L.A. Times. He’s written screenplays for Paul Newman, Robert DeNiro, Griffin Dunne, ABC, Warner Brothers and PBS. He’s founded cultural/intellectual websites (bookreporter.com, HeadButler.com).
But this latest project he considers bashert.
“This play was handed to me,” he insists. “I channeled it. Everything about it was bashert.”
He didn’t set out to write a play. But one night, as he was surfing the web, he happened upon a mention of the Chapelle du Rosaire, the chapel that Matisse designed in Vence, France.
“Decades ago,” he says, “on a trip to Provence, I’d made a pilgrimage to the chapel, and like everyone who experiences it, I was flattened by its alternately raw and subtle beauty. But I knew nothing of the story of its creation.”
“I knew a lot about Matisse’s art,” continues the fast-talking, funny, quintessential New Yorker (who was born in Boston and lived all over the country before settling into New York), “but I’d never thought to ask the key question about the chapel: ‘How did this atheist come to create a place of worship for Catholics?’
“The answer,” he continues, “was: a woman. But not in the way you may be thinking.”
Jesse spent years researching Matisse and his time in the south of France.
“It’s amazing,” he marvels. “A Jew writing a play about an atheist who made a Catholic chapel against the opposition of the head of the Catholic church there.”
The plot starts in 1942, when a 72 year-old Matisse, divorced and ailing, was living in Nice, having left Paris because of the German occupation. He had just undergone an operation for intestinal cancer, and was recuperating. His only companion and helper was his officious Russian assistant, Lydia. He was an inveterate insomniac, so he really needed a night nurse.
A young, 21-year-old nursing student, Monique Bourgeois, answered the ad. After she was hired, she and Matisse talked all night – for 15 nights.
“They had a deep soul connection,” Jesse explains. “He came to love her like a daughter. But when he learned that she was going to become a nun, he was enraged. They parted on bad terms.”
Five years later, they were both living in Vence, a medieval village in southeastern France.
“By this time,” says Jesse, “she’s a nun, now known as Sister Jacques-Marie. They’re friends again. Her convent prayed in a chapel that was once a garage. When it rained, the roof leaked. She asked Matisse to design a stained glass window so the nuns could raise money and repair the chapel. He offered to design a new chapel instead. And to pay for it.”
He spent years working on the design, mostly confined to bed or a wheelchair. But before the chapel was consecrated, he died (in 1954, at age 84). He called the Chapelle du Rosaire the “masterpiece” of his life. Some regard it as one of the great religious structures of the 20th century.
“In his third act,” Jesse marvels, “he creates his masterpiece. And he develops a deep, romantic soul connection. Who wouldn’t want that?”
Similarly inspired, says Jesse, “God gave me my marching orders. As Matisse said, ‘Do I believe in God? Yes – when I work!’”
And when Jesse picks his head up from the work, he sends it out to big-name actors that he knows on a first-name basis, thinking, “This play has a destiny to be in a big theater.”
But he didn’t want to wait for all the Hollywood or New York bureaucracy. He wanted the play to be produced sooner than later.
Last year (another part of the bashert story), when he was in La Jolla for his mother’s 100th birthday, he had breakfast with Dori Salois and Robert Salerno, who run Vantage Theatre, she as producer, he as artistic director.
“I trusted them,” says Jesse. “I knew they did good work, inventive work. I like win-win situations. They’ll have the premiere, and I’ll get to see the play on its feet.”
“This is an emotional evening,” he continues, “I’ve known Dori, on and off, for more than 30 years. I know she has enormous emotional depth. And she knew I was not just a slick New Yorker. When Dori and Robert suggested changes, I made them. They wanted smart stuff.
“I’m really delighted about this, and I’ll be there for the opening. I told my 15-year-old daughter, ‘you’re my red carpet date.’ And she, dripping with her usual irony said, ‘again?’ We’re gonna have a red carpet for sure. I’ll pay for it. My ambition is a home run rising as it clears the fence.”
Jesse sounds hyperbolic, but he actually delivers on what he says. He’s also something of a workaholic. He’s knows everyone (the names he drops are pretty remarkable, and his literary knowledge is, too). He’s always got a zillion projects in the works or in the wings, and even in conversation, a zillion ideas tumbling out simultaneously.
“My last words,” he vows, “when the Angel of Death comes to get me, will be ‘wait a second. I need to hit send.’”
Ties to La Jolla
Behind the scenes of this production, there’s a complex series of interrelations that converge in La Jolla.
Jesse’s brother, and his brother’s wife’s family are “an old La Jolla family.” His brother’s children went to Bishop’s School with Dori and Robert’s children (one daughter from each family remain best friends). Dori met Jesse’s brother when he was a med student and she was a nurse, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in Manhattan. Robert’s mother, a physician, taught Jesse’s brother at medical school.
“So, we have a semi-family connection with Jesse,” says Dori. “And he once saw a Vantage production. He knew what Robert does visually with plays. He pushes the envelope, and I lick it and seal it,” she quips, explaining their director/producer relationship.
“When Jesse sent us the play,” Dori continues, “I loved it, and thought it belongs on Broadway, or in a major regional theater. I jokingly said, ‘We’d be a great incubator for the play.’ And Jesse agreed. We were already selling tickets in November.”
“It’s a really, really good story,” she says, “and it fits all aspects of our mission: big ideas, great visual potential, and an Aha! moment.”
The production will include many images of Matisse’s work. And above the Tenth Avenue mainstage theater space, there will be a local artists’ exhibition in the 3rd floor gallery. Prior to performances, Vantage will host talks about Matisse, the religious life and other relevant topics. After the performance, audiences are invited up to the rooftop to admire the city view.
Another bashert element of the production was casting O.P. Hadlock as Matisse. A busy local actor, director and designer, he himself is an artist, and was able to create sketches and even replicate the famous Matisse cutouts that were the master’s preferred means of creating art in the later years of his life when he had limited mobility and could no longer paint.
“We’re thrilled with our cast,” crows Dori, who does some acting of her own around town.
“As we worked with Jesse on the play,” Robert says, “I started to fall in love with it. It’s a good story, with really important ideas: about art vs. religion, and the power of love to overcome obstacles. Of course, we’re talking platonic love here. In the second act, Picasso appears; he was younger and a great admirer of Matisse. When he heard about his illness, he came to see his friend. Picasso is played by James Steinberg, and he really kind of looks like him.”
To create a painterly visual backdrop with dozens of images and 6-10 projectors going at once, Robert had to secure the rights to many of Matisse’s paintings. He’s been in frequent contact with Matisse’s great grandson, Georges (“very gracious, very nice. We invited him to come see the production”).
He also had to contact the Baltimore museum (“they were exceedingly nice, and waived the copyright fee”) and the Museum of Modern Art in New York (“not so much”), and museums elsewhere in the U.S., as well as Europe and Russia.
The look of the piece will change from the first act to the second, says Robert, “because Matisse’s artwork changed. He used a long bamboo pole with a piece of charcoal on the end to create sketches for the chapel and other pieces.”
Robert, a physician who practiced obstetrics/gynecology for 20 years, believes in “utilizing whatever technology seems appropriate, to enhance and fortify what’s happening onstage. In order to achieve the impossible, you have to attempt the absurd,” he says, paraphrasing a quote variously attributed to writer Miguel de Cervantes, physicist Albert Einstein, artist M.C. Escher and the 19th century Spanish Basque essayist/philosopher Miguel de Unamuno (the actual source).
Surprisingly, Robert has no technical or art background, but he has always been fascinated with art. When he was in college, he dabbled in writing, music and filmmaking, returning to the arts after he retired from his medical practice. All his work with Vantage, a 30-year-old company that he and Dori took over in 1999, has been complex and highly visual.
“This evening,” Dori promises, “will offer theater, art and a roof view – a full artful experience.”
“This story is so personal to these people,” says Jesse, “but it’s about really big things. I feel like I’m doing a mitzvah for the world. I just happen to be the agent of it. Because I didn’t become a Rabbi, as the rabbi at my Bar mitzvah said I should, this is my rabbinical offering, my Yom Kippur sermon.”
Vantage Theatre’s world premiere production of “THE COLOR OF LIGHT” will be presented at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center, downtown, Jan. 11-Feb. 3. Α
Tickets and information: 619-940-6813;