On April 8, the closing night of Bury Me in Paris, something different is going to happen. A new Madame Mustache will enter the gardens of Montparnasse, accuse her enemies, demand the spotlight, and become embroiled in a dangerous game of life and death. Murder haunts them in Paris, and Heather McGaha, who will take over the role from Lena Pokol on April 8, is up for the challenge.
Working with two actresses on developing the same character is an intriguing experience. Interpretations of the same source material vary wildly between different people. Rather than try to jam the actresses into a cookie cutter of a character, we allowed them to experiment and find their own interpretation of Madame Mustache. With two actresses, the same character can show a million different sides to the exact same situation. And at Master Mystery Productions, we found the process fascinating. Through visuals, actress interpretation, and performance, we’ll explore who one bohemian woman can be made of a million dimensions.
FIRE AND ICE-THE TWO CHANTALS: THE MAKING OF BURY ME IN PARIS (Part 5)
She was the most beautiful muse in all of Paris. She was sharp, strong, liberated, and entirely her own woman. She was deep and all-consuming in her passions as she was cool and distant in her compassion. She was Madame Mustache, the queen of her petty empire in Montparnasse. But with every light, there must be shadow, and something dark is creeping into her bohemian paradise. What has she seen? What does she know? What lurks in the shadows? And who will get burned by the lights of Paris?
Chantal was a fun and engaging character to create. She, like many female characters in Master Mystery Productions, is a woman of force, of electric personality, of strength. It’s not so much a physical strength as an emotional strength. Hers is a story of control and vulnerability, of magnetic personality and charm and deadly passions. Like other powerful women in our shows (Lila Schroeder, June Schulz, Lady Elizabeth, Mia Mallowan, Commander Cassie Ross, Belle Highlander, Wildflower, ad infinitum), Chantal has an invisible energy that draws people in. To cast such characters requires a fine eye for detail and careful discussion of what that character means to the actor.
Lena Pokol (Goodbye Hollywood, Rainbow’s End, The Importance of Being Earnest, Sweeney Todd) and Heather McGaha (The Lion in Winter, Beauty and the Beast, As Bees in Honey Drown) are experienced theatrical veterans with credits longer than the Seine. We knew both of them could handle dissecting the complexities of Chantal’s personality. Below you can read the actresses’ views on the character and how they developed her from script to stage:
LENA: “Chantal is the epitome of a muse, and she is not your average lady from the 20’s. She’s strong, bold, free-spirited, and fearless. She knows her power of grace, intelligence, and wit, and she uses it all to her advantage. She is not grounded in material things or luxury, but would rather spend anything she makes on experiences. Her life is rich with experiences. Chantal often takes up all the space in the room with her painted-on mustache and sharp intellect. She’s all bark AND all bite. The expected role as a woman does not define her. She is entirely her own person, bohemian and carefree. A lover of art and smart beyond reason, she embraces the lifestyle she has created–It’s her through and through.”
HEATHER: “Chantal is classy and sophisticated. She keeps her true emotions to herself, hiding behind her mustache and tarted-up truth. She isn’t as fearless as she lets on. One of her greatest fears is being forgotten. She isn’t content with who she is or her life. She wants more. So she creates her ideal self, her ideal life, and takes everyone else along for the ride with her. She is very cautious of who she lets in and allows to see glimpses of her true self. Once they are allowed in, they are never allowed free.”
Chantal was given no visual clues in this script besides the makeup mustache. So the differences between our two actresses are striking. Pokol is tall, statuesque, vivacious, full of energy and power with a big voice. McGaha is more delicate, fluid, refined in motion and tone, more reserved. Both represent Chantal. The play already contains themes of duality, and the yin and yang aspect of these two performances are a fascinating study.
Pokol’s Chantal is like fire. Her delivery is passionate, emotional, and tempestuous. Even when she plays cool and calm and collected, you can still feel the burning energy within her heart and soul. Her words are sharp and saucy, filled with intensity, high spirit, and vitality. Pokol as Chantal is almost fatally alive, a kind of intense living that feels at times dangerous. You can always sense that there’s huge depths of feeling behind every word she utters, that scars run deeper and pain felt more acutely than other characters. The emotional range is wide and deep. Her Chantal is unpredictable–sweet as sugar one moment, sharp and biting the next. As unpredictable as a flame bringing warmth and light but also burning and leaving a path of destruction.
McGaha’s Chantal is like ice. Cool-headed, controlled, and mysterious. Her words do not smolder or burn; They cut. Clear, precise intonation fixed with a sly glance and calm smile that reveal nothing. McGaha as Chantal is far more reserved about her feelings and thoughts, making her intriguing and enigmatic. When she speaks, it’s like dozens of tiny blades in the air. Her approach is far more frosty towards others, without any pretense to warmth or generosity. Her Chantal yields less, keeps her counsel remarkably well, and can carry a secret to the grave. There’s a frigid, yet extremely delicate strength and grace in her every move, a woman who calculates and controls. Her power lies not in her vitality, but in her secrecy, privacy, and intense reserve. An iron woman who understands and relishes her strength and power over situations. An Ice Queen.
Both of these performances are strong and noteworthy. They show the vast range of options a single character can hold. Part of those performances seemed to spread into their costuming as well, adding further visual cues into the mindset of these very distinct performances. Pokol’s party dress is sparkling gold like the sparks from a bonfire, while McGaha’s is shimmering silver, a sheath of glacial ice. For the funeral, they both wear predominately black accented with silk brocade paying homage to the 1920’s fascination with exoctic locales. Pokol’s silk is vivid scarlet covered in lively, dancing butterflies. McGaha’s is cool blue embroidered with dazzling white dragons.
Two powerhouse actresses. Two distinct and powerful performances. And one neighborhood in Paris. Master Mystery Productions has been blessed to receive the variety of brilliant talent from all our performers, and we look forward to celebrating their skill in future shows.
The gates of Paris are about to close as closing night of Bury Me in Paris is April 8 at 7 p.m. at My Enchanted Cottage and Tea Room (214 W. Ridgecrest Blvd.). Tickets are available here.
Join us for a final night under the stars and the soft glow of the lamps of The City of Lights. We’d be enchanted to have you.
–Master Mystery Productions