Not to be confused with the Cameron Macintosh production of Boublil & Schönberg's impostor Martin Guerre that tried to take London by storm last year, The House of Martin Guerre, with music and lyrics by Leslie Arden and book by Leslie Arden & Anna Theresa Cascio, opened the 1997-98 Canadian Stage Company season at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. The gliterati in attendance were presented with a sweeping tale of love, deceit, betrayal and redemption, driven by a beautiful, soaring, and fiery score. Judging by the thunderous and longest standing ovation we have ever seen, the real Martin Guerre has triumphantly returned to Toronto.
The musical has an interesting pedigree. It was developed from a germ of an idea in 1991 following some masterclasses with Stephen Sondheim, whom Arden cites as one of the biggest musical influences in her life. Sondheim and Canadian composers Jim Betts and Joey Miller all provided ongoing critiques of the work in progress. Arden, who would seem to have a great future, was drawn to the emotional story and period, which lent itself to a dramatic score. The previous incarnation of Arden's Martin Guerre at Theatre Plus Toronto won a Dora Mavor Moore Award in 1994. A refined book and music went on to win rave reviews at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where it was named Best Musical at the 1996 Jefferson Awards.
Comparisons are inevitable with London's West End Guerre, which we saw last year. The British/French mega-musical has a lush and complex orchestration that Arden is unable to match with her experience and smaller orchestral forces. The Canadian incarnation, however, has a far stronger book, and, like the "other" version, is wonderful to look at. At a press conference in Toronto this week to announce the return of his Les Misérables to Toronto in 1998, Cameron Macintosh was asked what he thought of two musicals on the same subject in such a short period of time? Macintosh, who himself was instrumental in getting Arden's version on the boards, explained that the timeless and fascinating story is the perfect platform for this type of theatre.
The House of Martin Guerre is a true story, set in a time when the world was emerging into the age of enlightenment, and Protestantism was taking a firm hold in the heart of Europe. An arranged marriage, or merger, joins 11-year-young Bertrande de Rols to a fiercely reluctant youth of 15 (and implied homosexual), Martin Guerre, in the small southern French village of Artigat in 1557. After eight tumultuous years of unconsummated marriage, Martin finally beds Bertrande, then abandons her, fleeing Artigat. Eight years later, a much changed Martin Guerre returns, unexpectedly, with tall tales of war and adventure, to reclaim his former life, and his lands that, in his absence, have been administered by his covetous uncle. But is this the real Martin Guerre? Can a man have changed that much? His wife takes him back, but, faced with the ultimate test of her love, Bertrande must make the most difficult decision of all. The House of Martin Guerre centres on the poignant story of Bertrande as an individual striving to find truth and dignity despite the collective forces working against her.
Arden's work has a decidedly feminist bent focussing on Bertrande (Julain Molnar) and the choices society, and men, have forced upon her. Many of the wonderfully tuneful songs concentrate on her lot, and that of women's in general. The Way of the World, sung by Bertrande's mother, Bernarde (Hollis Resnik), is a wonderfully written and thrilling anti-anthem to a woman's "place" in a man's world. The Wedding Night is a sweet lament to Young Bertrande's (Stephanie Ekstein) scornful husband (Shaun Amyot), while No Life at All, a ravishing duet with Bertrande and Arnaud (Roger Honeywell) and The World Is Changing, are the "big" songs that we won't soon forget. Unlike other recent musicals by unproven talents, the audience leaves the theatre humming.
The House of Martin Guerre brings to the stage an extraordinary group of talents. Molnar, who premiered the role of Bertrande in Chicago, is completely captivating. Her strong lyric soprano washes over the audience in ravishing waves that electrify and thrill. Honeywell, a gifted actor well known to Shaw Festival audiences, energizes with an exceptional voice, while Hollis Resnik brings down the house in the second act with intense and moving singing.
In support and providing outstanding contributions are Kevin Gudahl as Uncle Pierre, unknown to us before this opening, who has a marvellously expressive voice and a great stage presence. Sharron Matthews as Catherine, Bertrande's best friend, is possessed of formidable gifts, and Martin's sisters, played by Patty Jamieson and Glynis Ranney, provide the required comic relief, reminiscent of the Cinderella's helpful mice as they scurry around her in good-natured argument. And to steal our hearts, there's Luca Perlman as Little Sanzi, Martin's son, fresh from his role as Chip in Disney's Beauty and the Beast.
The evocative, but wonderfully simplistic designs were inspired by Pieter Bruegel's paintings of 16th century European peasant life. They are the responsibility of Robert Brill as set designer, Susan Hilferty as costume designer and Kevin Lamotte's lighting based on original lighting by James F. Ingalls.
Arden and friends have created a meticulously structured, complex, emotional, and stunningly beautiful production that will live long in our collective memories. With taut and seamless direction by David Petrarca, the result is spectacular. Don't miss it. The House of Martin Guerre runs until Saturday, October 25, 1997 at The Bluma Appel Theatre at The St Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Performances are Monday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m., with matinees on Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. For tickets ($30 to 60) call The Canadian Stage Box Office at (416) 368-3110 or TicketMaster at (416) 872-1111.
There's no use pretending the farmer's new clothes are anything other than what they are: worn out. "The fourth part of the Wingfield Trilogy," as Dan Needles' latest foray into the rural humour is often called, is a disappointment. Those who have never seen the first three will wonder what all the fuss is about (the Wingfield plays are, after the venerable Anne of Green Gables, the most staged plays in Canada). Those of us who have seen the first three, and eagerly awaited this new instalment, feel short-changed. The rapid-fire wry wit has been largely replaced with a laid-back story-teller style that tries, often as not and just as unsuccessfully, to bring tears rather than guffaws.
Wingfield Unbound does have a few guffaws. Three, to be precise: two in the first act and one in the second. It has a fair share of chuckles, but most are rewarded to the actor, not the writer. The laugh comes before the punch line most of the time. Not that the actor does not deserve them. Rod Beattie, into whose exclusive purview has fallen the character of Walt Wingfield, the popular ex-stock broker now in his fourth year of trying to run a farm, still manages single-handedly to portray seventeen eccentric characters and a dog, as he dictates his weekly letter to the editor of the Persephone Township News. His problems now are more timely: political amalgamation, futures trading fraud, and the Internet (plus a haunted mill for the old timers among us). The stories are longer, the puns contrived (Pink Floyd?), and the ground less fertile. Where are the classic country truisms? (Personal favourite, from Wingfield I or II: Walt - "Have you lived here all your life?" Squire - "Not yet.") The best we hear now is a debate over "dinner" or "supper." You would think in four years he would have learned that "dinner" was at noon, and "lunch" was a midnight treat - in the country.
Beattie's stumbling delivery takes nothing away from the characterizations, but one can't help wondering how he manages to keep four such similar stories separate in his mind as he spends a reported 250 nights a year presenting one version or another on every stage from Stratford Festival to Wingham Public High School. Into that gruelling schedule he also found time to appear in three other Stratford productions this past summer. But no one else, to our knowledge, has ever been licensed to portray these misadventures, for indeed, no one could. It takes continuity to support 17 characters and a dog, and it takes a devoted following to support a new production. Playwright Needles, however, is in a furrow with Wingfield. He has other talents - a seven-character comedy, The Perils of Persephone about radioactive waste disposal, delighted Blyth audiences several years ago, and he has just published The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in celebration of the Fair's 75th Anniversary - we would encourage him to move in those directions.
Alas, however, we fear that Walt & Maggie will soon be on stage with Son of Wingfield, Installment 5 of the Winfield Trilogy. These two reviewers won't be celebrating.
Wingfield Unbound is currently produced by the Canadian Stage Company at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St Lawrence Centre for the Arts, until December 13, 1997. For tickets, phone 416/368-3110 or TicketMaster at 416/872-1111.
Canadian Stage Company' s co-production with London's Grand Theatre of Molly Sweeney by Brian Friel, and directed by Miles Potter, opened recently at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St, Lawrence Centre for the Arts. This beautifully written play by one of Ireland's greatest living playwrights (Dancing at Lughnasa, Faith Healer, Translations) chronicles a blind woman's emotional journey from darkness to light and back again. Friel employs his proven technique from Faith Healer where actors tell the story through monologues and speak only to the audience, never to each other. This unique device was used recently with rather less success in Shawn's The Designated Mourner. Where Shawn's words and actors fail in their bid to involve the audience with their characters, Friel and Potter mostly succeed with eloquent language and tight direction in relating Molly Sweeney's exploration of triumph and loss.
Molly Sweeney (Nancy Palk) is, fundamentally, a story of a strong forty-something woman used by two needy men. She has been blind since 10 months old, her eyes now riddled with cataracts and retinal disease. The two men's needs are inflicted on an afflicted woman who doesn't believe she is physically challenged. Molly is self-assured, confident, independent and content to rely on her other senses.
Her adventurer and compulsive environmentalist husband of two years, Frank (R.H. Thomson) desperately wants her to see and is completely enthralled by her disorder, in addition to an eclectic group of fauna: bees, whales, and, believe it or not, jet-lagged Iranian goats. The restoration of Molly's sight becomes his latest cause. While she loves his passion and his enthusiasm for life, and her, his actions become somewhat predictable.
Inebriate ophthalmic surgeon Mr Rice (John Neville) -- British surgeons are never referred to as "doctor" -- was a once-brilliant physician who now wants to restore Molly's sight for that "chance-of-a-lifetime" to reinvigorate his withered reputation, and his manhood, after being cuckolded by his wife with a professional contemporary. Molly's life is changed irrevocably when her sight is restored after a lifetime of living through her imagination.
The three characters relate their rather self-absorbed tales directly to the audience during the first act which, though involving, does not send the imagination soaring. The tension builds, however, as the operation nears and, especially when the bandages are removed. The actors build the emotional pressure as it becomes clear that the partial sight that Molly now possesses is no guarantee of happiness. The doctor is metaphorically crushed into an emotional heap as he realises the operation was for naught, as Frank takes up new interests.
All three stars give mighty performances, with Palk sporting a sweet accent one wants to hug. Hers and Neville's lilting Irish brogue contrasts with Thomson's inharmonious and uneven Belfast inflection. Palk, whom we don't see enough of in Toronto lately, delivers Molly's monologues eloquently and plumbs the depths of horror when given the gift of unwelcome sight. Neville, in maybe his last production as an actor, has fine moments as the booze-soaked has-been, while Thomson continues to demonstrate why he is one of the finest actors Canada has ever produced. Playing the role The Musician is actor-fiddler Caitrona Murphy.
The set (Astrid Janson) and lighting (Robert Thomson) is particularly effective. A series of chairs and sweeping ramps, minimalist it would seem at first glance, is embellished with sweeping red-stained (or is it blood?) curtains. Thomson's creative lighting evokes Molly's blurred world, and slowly brings, her, and the audience, out of the dark.
Molly Sweeney is a play about hope and triumph over adversity. Go and see her astonishing journey before it closes.
Molly runs February 16 until March 21, 1998, at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto. Performances are Monday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m., with matinees on Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. For tickets call The Canadian Stage Box Office at (416) 368-3110 or TicketMaster at (416) 872-1111. Ticket prices are from $25 - $55.