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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 3, 2000. All rights reserved.

Catching up with Polly Pen

E-mail: SimonSaltzman@princetoninfo.com

The suspense that lurks within the plot of Polly Pen’s

new musical, "The Night Governess," is also active behind

the scenes of the play that opens this week at McCarter. Pen’s adaptation

of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th-century thriller short-story "Behind

a Mask" is also marked by hopeful anticipation, as Pen prepares

a new musical for the first time without the assistance of her long-time

director-collaborator Andre Ernotte, who died last spring. Picked

to direct "The Night Governess," is Lisa Peterson, whose direction

of such intellectually provocative plays as "The Trestle at Pope

Lick Creek" at New York Theater Workshop, "Tongue of a Bird"

at the Public Theater, and "Collected Stories" at Manhattan

Theater Club has garnered praise from critics.

Peterson says her admiration for Pen began when she saw her first

widely-acclaimed musical "Goblin Market" at the Vineyard Theater

in 1985. Six years later, Peterson directed Pen in a production of

Craig Lucas’ "Reckless," at the Hartford Stage. Lest we forget,

playwright and composer Pen is also an accomplished actress with appearances

in the Off-Broadway hit "Charlotte Sweet," in the On-Broadway

one-night-stand of "The Utter Glory of Morrisey Hall," plus

three annual appearances in McCarter’s production of "A Christmas

Carol" to her credit. Pleased to be asked to take up the formidable

challenge to fill the void left by Ernotte, Peterson says, "I

had always secretly hoped that Polly and I would work together again."

Since "The Night Governess" was well into development and

had already been given a staged reading at McCarter, Peterson considers

how difficult it was to step into something that had come so far with

another director. "I had to come in and play catch-up."

Catching up with a new Pen project has to be daunting for a director

who admittedly sees the complexity of Pen’s style, an appealing mixture

of the mysterious and romantic. "I think it’s Pen’s perversity

that makes her so unique," says Peterson about the composer. Notwithstanding

the 19th-century romantic element in her music, Pen had previously

told me that she is indirectly inspired by a style of French and English

medieval literature called "fabliau," that tell a short metrical

story, often in eight-syllable lines, of ordinary life, often with

blunt realism and earthy humor.

"Like those elements that appear in Pen’s work, I am also drawn

to the intellectual and the whimsical," says Peterson, as she

explains Pen’s uniquely whimsical musical style to switch tonally

back and forth all the time, sometimes lush, sometimes romantic, and

other times highly abstract. "What I love about it is that it

works on so many layers, constantly changing in surprising ways, but

never self-conscious."

The story of "The Night Governess" is the story of Jean Muir,

an alluring woman of uncertain age with a secret past and pedigree,

who takes a job as a governess, and proceeds to manipulate her upright

but somewhat hapless employers’ family for her own mysterious ends.

Her actions are essentially the means to more metaphysical ends. It

is to these metaphysical ends — that are in the musical pure Pen

— that Peterson sees as the most intriguing elements.

"The Story of a Knowledge Vampire" was the subtitle of Pen’s

thriller in its earliest draft. "The Night Governess" unfolds

as a 19th-century nightmare, in which Muir’s mysterious "night

lessons" to her unwitting adult charges turned somnambulists,

introduce the ideas about aging and mortality, time and how its works,

and what it does to us.

"I am drawn to plays that try to articulate complex ideas,"

says Peterson, citing Shaw and Brecht. She says what she found initially

most compelling in Pen’s musical is her remarkable, hummable seven-minute

song about time. "Although it’s active, it’s only about aging

and waiting." Peterson prefers to use the term "brain action"

in place of intellectual, when she describes the interior path this

musical takes.

Admitting that she felt the presence of Ernotte in the project for

a long time, Peterson is grateful that Pen never said to her, "Andre

did this and Andre did that." If Pen was compelled to reveal to

Peterson what Ernotte had planned, Peterson says she found her way

to her own interpretation, even though it understandably took some

time. "It took time to get a grip on the story and the story that

Pen was telling." It was also hard not to approach the musical

with a great reverence for Ernotte and his past work with her, which

included "Goblin Market," Pen’s Obie-winning "Bed and

Sofa," "Songs on a Shipwrecked Sofa," "Christina Alberta’s

Father," "Her Lightness," and "The Dumb Cake,"

commissioned by McCarter for its 1996 new play festival.

As McCarter’s first funded playwright-in-residence,

Pen has been working on "The Night Governess" for three years.

Peterson only became involved last May following Ernotte’s death.

Says Peterson: "My instinct was to tread softly for many months.

I think Pen’s goal was to find someone who shared a similar sensibility,

and she guessed right about me. It wasn’t my goal to put my imprint

on it, or make it mine. It’s hard for writers. It’s like entrusting

someone to care for your infant."

What Peterson sees as a good partnership is that "while I’m struggling

to interpret it, Pen is struggling to articulate it." It is "a

process of struggle and agreement, moving and cutting."

About the time three months ago when casting had begun, Peterson,

who had not seen the work in workshop but had heard it on tape, would

say, "I got it." I wondered if Peterson had ever directed

anything similar to "The Night Governess." Peterson says that

she could indeed relate it indirectly to "The Waves," a musical

play that she co-adapted and directed based on the literary text by

Virginia Woolf. "As with `Night Governess,’ the story had to be

uncovered and it was full of brain action." But Peterson also

admires how Pen’s musical takes so many stylistic turns, from opera

to operetta to straight play.

"I love doing plays that are not just one thing," says Peterson.

She may feel particularly connected to Pen’s music because it is classical

and she was a violist until she was in her 20s. One of the hurdles

for Peterson was re-discovering skills that she had 10 years back.

She sees musical theater has having stronger guideposts than non-musical

theater. Although about two-thirds of "The Night Governess"

is sung, there is a good deal of underscoring. With eight singing

actors on stage and eight musicians in the pit, Peterson has no doubt

that this is her most daunting production since she directed Shakespeare’s

"Antony and Cleopatra" with just seven actors at Berkeley

Rep last fall.

"Once the actors get up on their feet with it, the play changes

its nature completely. Something can read well on paper and not work

on performance, while something that doesn’t read well is suddenly

full," says Peterson. Considering that four of the eight-member

cast of "The Night Governess" are veterans of Broadway’s "Titanic"

company, and that Pen herself had been a member of the "Titanic"

workshop, I asked Peterson what the connection might be. "Casting

for singers who are also very smart actors narrows the pool. They

must be able to tackle a very dense text," says Peterson, as we

agree that "Titanic" was just that.

The cast includes Judy Blazer as the governess, Jean Muir. Blazer

appeared as Lady Caroline in "Titanic," and was most recently

in "The Torch Bearers" Off-Broadway and in McCarter’s "Governess"

workshop production. Mary Stout, who played Mrs. Fairfax in "Jane

Eyre" at the La Jolla Playhouse, plays family matriarch Mrs. Coventry.

Taking a leave from the road-tour of "Cabaret," Alma Cuervo

appears as the housekeeper Dean. Cuervo is a veteran of Pen musicals

"Songs on a Shipwrecked Sofa" and "Christina Alberta’s

Father."

Also in the cast are Danielle Ferland as 16-year-old Nellie (Little

Red Riding Hood in "Into the Woods") and Erin Hill (Lulu in

"Cabaret") as the beautiful Chloe. Robert Sella, who appeared

both off and on Broadway in "Sideman," plays son Gerald, and

Danny Gurwin ("The Scarlet Pimpernel") plays Ned Coventry.

John Jellison, who plays Sir John Coventry, appeared on Broadway in

the revival of "On the Town." He will be familiar to audiences

who saw "Johnny Pye and the Foolkiller" and "Twist,"

both at the George Street Playhouse.

A native of Santa Cruz, California, and currently living bi-coastally,

Peterson got her undergraduate degree in theater and English from

Yale in 1983. An Obie-Ward winner for her direction of "Light

Shining in Buckinghamshire," Peterson is a resident director at

the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. She has also directed for Baltimore

Center Stage, Actors Theater of Louisville, Williamstown Theater Festival,

La Jolla Playhouse, and Dallas Theater center.

I asked Peterson what she felt the intriguing "Night Governess"

was about. "Although it’s about truth and lies, it’s also about

identity and learning to be fully human," she says. "When

this mysterious woman comes into a sleepy family she starts to turn

their world upside down. They are shaken, and that’s a good thing.

As I said on the first day of rehearsal `It’s about a process of waking

up.’"

While Peterson recognizes "The Night Governess" as delicate

and intimate, it is the largest scale musical she has ever tackled,

and McCarter the largest theater she has ever directed in. Interestingly

it was while Peterson was still in college and wanting to be an actor

that she went to Louisville to see a preview of a play that Emily

Mann was directing (before Mann became McCarter’s artistic director).

"I sat behind Mann and watched her involved in the play and taking

notes. She was not only the director but also a woman. She made a

huge impression on me as a role model." Now it is up to Peterson

to make her own impression, as the suspense mounts.

— Simon Saltzman

The Night Governess, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-258-2787. The new musical by Polly Pen, directed by Lisa

Peterson. $27 to $39. Opening Friday, May 5, 8 p.m. for the

play that runs to Sunday, May 21.


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