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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 10, 2000. All rights reserved.
Review: `The Night Governess’
Last Friday night, at the end of a long day of a techno-virus-riddled
week, Polly Pen took a few of us 21st-century somnambulists and gave
us a stir. At McCarter Theater’s premiere of "The Night Governess,"
Pen presented her brand-new chamber musical that is as whimsical as
it is intriguing. Tuneful and funny, quirky and unpredictable, the
show is erudite without being stuffy. And in case we latter-day technocrats
ever doubted it, her message is that "knowledge is power."
Set in a fine home outside Philadelphia just before the Civil War,
"The Night Governess" is the story of Jean Muir, a femme fatale
with a secret past who enters the sleepy household and brilliantly
manipulates her employers for her own mysterious ends. In a story
rife with vampire metaphors, the mysterious Muir is patently one of
society’s "disempowered" women; yet even as she succeeds in
bending the family to her will, her thirst for power (and whiskey)
grows. Within the context of this small comic musical, Pen tackles
a banquet of big topics: time and existence, truth and deception,
organization and chaos.
Deftly directed by Lisa Peterson (on a screen-riddled set that should
have been more fun), this first full-length musical commissioned by
McCarter Theater features an animated Judith Blazer as Muir, and a
fierce Alma Cuervo as the mysterious family housekeeper, Dean.
Pen’s original, persuasive musical style is sometimes lush, sometimes
romantic, sometimes abstract, and always rhythmically intriguing.
While "The Night Governess" offers a feast of nonstop wordplay,
its spoken text serves mainly to bridge the transition from one witty
song to the next — 19 in all — supplied by eight singing actors,
often presented in Mozart-like ensemble, and a nine-member pit orchestra,
led by pianist and conductor Alan Johnson.
The leitmotif of "The Night Governess" is a witty and winning
song on the phenomenon of time. "Time is a moving thing… a thing
that moves about us and within us, never stopping, so it seems that
we are doing nothing with it." Pen has a heyday with her subject,
inviting each character to contribute their own peculiar ideas, capped
off by what is surely the show’s most memorable line: "Time is
the teacher who kills all her pupils."
As we learn from McCarter’s program notes, author Louisa May Alcott,
on whose story the musical is based, led a double literary life. She
published the source story, "Behind a Mask or A Woman’s Power,"
in 1866 under the pen name A.M. Barnard. This was the cover Alcott
used for her bread-and-butter writing and as a forum for her most
vehement ideas about women and society.
Pen, in turn, laces her musical with cultural references that begin
with Alcott and proceed to Christina Rossetti, the Brontes, Coleridge,
George Gissing, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, to name just a few.
Yet the freshest young audiences will enjoy the work for the twists
and turns of its melodramatic plot; in the dark depths of academe
it will be appreciated for its vampire-like bites at recent scholarship.
As the pair of gold-digging working women, Blazer and Cuervo are an
unbeatable duo, sharing a flair for melodrama that is matched by their
musicality. Their most galvanizing moments come during their music
hall-inspired duet, "Odd Women," hearkening to the pervasive
Victorian anxiety about its nonconformist females. Here Pen says it
all with her priceless lyric: "We are odd women / living unevenly…
We love our liberty / we sleep diagonally."
Mary Stout is the convincingly stout matriarch, Mrs. Coventry. Fitfully
ruling (between cat naps) over her sleepy household, her predominant
interest is ventilation; her most passionate pronouncement: "How
grateful I am for air." Danielle Ferland appears a bit mature
as 16-year-old Nellie Coventry, but her spunk is winning, and visually
she makes a convincing new chip off her ailing mother’s old family
As the beautiful young Chloe, a young woman on the marriage market
who epitomizes the enforced idleness of her class, Erin Hill brings
a powerful presence and poise to the proceedings.
The two Coventry brothers also offer rich territory for satire, nowhere
more delightfully addressed than in their anatomy lesson duet which
only serves to confirm what they already knew: "Women are not
a bit like us." Robert Sella plays eldest son Gerald as a cautious
but dandified semi-head of household. Danny Gurwin plays the young
Ned Coventry as a perfectly exuberant innocent, portraying the young
man’s yearnings as an amusing cross between Henry James and "Dazed
It is (another) credit to artistic director Emily Mann that we have
here a new comic work hinging on the lives and aspirations of women,
written by a woman, with music and libretto by a woman, based on a
novel by a woman, and directed by a woman. (Oddly, the pit orchestra
And rest assured that Pen’s product is as subversive as it is delightful.
From Muir’s first entrance when she sticks out a reptilian tongue
at the audience, she does everything in her power to show us her wicked
side. And by the time she reveals herself as a "Knowledge Vampire,"
we have learned — from Alcott through the talent of Pen —
what it meant for a working woman of the 1850s to survive by means
of intelligence alone. So who is the "Knowledge Vampire" here?
— Nicole Plett
Place, 609-258-2787. Performances through May 21. $27 to $39.
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