The House of Martin Guerre

Goodman Theatre

By Albert Williams

There’s a scene early in The House of Martin Guerre, the new musical drama that director David Petrarca has shepherded from a Toronto workshop to the Goodman Theatre’s main stage, that encapsulates the work’s promise at this stage in its development. Martin Guerre, a 14-year-old peasant in 16th-century France, has just been wedded to his 11-year-old neighbor, Bertrande de Rols. The marriage, arranged by the youngsters’ families as a merger of property, suits neither bride nor groom; while Bertrande trembles with anxiety at having her life so rigidly dictated, Martin burns with adolescent anger, refusing to dance with his bride at their nuptial feast. Finally, browbeaten by his angry father and uncle, surly Martin steps into the center of the floor and begins to dance–not with Bertrande but by himself, in a pulsing, heavy-footed display of youthful male pride and aloof defiance.

It’s a thrilling sequence, not just because of Guy Adkins’s powerful dancing and David Marques’s fine choreography, but because of the way movement and music are fused with story and character: the audience’s discovery of Martin’s emotions is linked with its visceral response to Adkins’s flamencolike footwork and the strangely elegant yet primitive Basque-flavored music. Coming in the show’s first few minutes, the scene seems to herald a potent new work in the tradition of such landmark collaborations as those between Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story), Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim (Gypsy), and Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof)–a true union of music, movement, and storytelling.

This is a tradition that would be especially well suited to this story, based on a historical incident that’s passed into legend. As history professor Natalie Zemon Davis recounts in her book The Return of Martin Guerre, the young Martin abandoned his family and farm to go off to war, leaving his wife Bertrande husbandless for many years yet prohibited from remarrying by Catholic doctrine. When “Martin” reappeared, Bertrande welcomed him back into her home–even though he wasn’t actually Martin but a brilliant impostor named Arnaud du Tilh. When Pierre Guerre, the real Martin’s uncle (who was married to Bertrande’s mother), discovered the hoax, he pressured Bertrande into bringing charges against the impostor–lest she be implicated as an adulteress, for adultery was the most serious crime the imposture involved. Centuries after the events, the mystery isn’t whether “Martin” was a fake but whether, and when, Bertrande figured out the truth–and why she kept it a secret until circumstances forced her hand. An enigmatic tale like this is perfect for a musical that allows viewers to share the uncertainty the characters are feeling.

And for the first of its two acts, that’s just what this show does. Though no additional dance sequence generates the excitement of the wedding scene, Petrarca and set and costume designers Robert Brill and Susan Hilferty give the story a dynamically varied, historically detailed texture. And the superb cast deliver nuanced, idiosyncratic performances. Anthony Crivello’s faux Martin and Julain Molnar’s Bertrande–both warm, charming, sensitive, and just perceptibly desperate to hold onto the arranged marriage they’ve rearranged–are effectively supported by Hollis Resnik as Bertrande’s steely mother and Kevin Gudahl as Martin’s bluff uncle. In telling minor roles are Frances Limoncelli as Bertrande’s best friend, John W. Eskola as the local priest, Kelly Anne Clark and Marnie Nicollela as Martin’s giddy younger sisters, Tina Gluschenko and Mary Ernster as women of the village, Kingsley Leggs and David Girolmo as the two judges appointed to the case, and child actors Cecily Strong and Willie Malnati in achingly real portrayals of the young Bertrande and Bertrande’s son.

But in its second act–just when the drama and suspense should be rising, as the imposture is exposed and brought to court–The House of Martin Guerre becomes yet another stand-still-and-sing-your-heart-out musical, as a steady flow of graceful but increasingly similar-sounding melodies diminishes the complexity of characters who tell us what they’re feeling rather than letting us watch them feel it. In at least one first-act number, composer-lyricist Leslie Arden shows that she understands subtext: as Bertrande prepares for her wedding night in the first scene, she sings not about love or sex or being afraid but about the blanket and pillowcases she’s so carefully stitched. The sweet song poignantly conveys all the nervousness Bertrande hopes to hide. But as the nearly three-hour evening progresses, such subtle writing is replaced by bombast and platitudes: Arden declaims rather than illuminates the themes of the individual versus society and women’s difficulties in negotiating a man’s world. It’s as if she feared she wouldn’t reach an audience whose tastes are shaped by TV, pop concerts, and stage extravaganzas that spell out every quirk of human psychology. As a result her big second-act set piece, the trial scene, descends into musical-comedy silliness just when the story reaches its gravest point.

Arden and scriptwriter Anna Theresa Cascio also ignore some significant opportunities. For example, in the wedding scene much is made of Martin’s ability as a dancer, seemingly preparing the way for a confrontation with the fake Martin, who can’t dance–a confrontation that never takes place though it would fit the musical-theater form perfectly. When the real Martin finally returns home crippled, with one leg replaced by a wooden stump, the grim irony of his fate goes unremarked. Arden and Cascio also fail to believably depict the moment when Bertrande reveals to “Martin” that she knows he’s a fraud; the writers hint at a shared but silent understanding between the couple, but that hardly paves the way for this highly charged showdown.

Part of the problem may be that, like so many writers laboring under the influence of Stephen Sondheim, Arden the lyricist inadvertently undercuts Arden the composer. Her music (beautifully arranged by Bruce Coughlin, who’s enhanced the tunes’ medieval folk and liturgical influences with exquisite wind, string, and percussion textures) fails to linger in the memory because its lyrics are merely functional; one longs for words that will put the story in perspective through poetic imagery rather than merely relaying plot information or spouting cliches about the need for change. Petrarca, too, would benefit from fuller collaboration with a choreographer, one who doesn’t just stage one or two numbers, as Marques seems to have done, but who makes dance an integral element throughout the work. In its current incarnation, The House of Martin Guerre is a worthy finale to Goodman’s season; but if the show is to have a future, its creators need to do some extensive rebuilding on the solid foundation they’ve set.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Eric Y. Exit.