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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 10, 2000. All rights reserved.

Review: `The Night Governess’

E-mail: NicolePlett@princetoninfo.com

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

block.

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

and Confused."

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

is all-male.)

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

The Night Governess, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-258-2787. Performances through May 21. $27 to $39.


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