Worn, as they are, over the sweatshirts, jeans and Reeboks, rehearsal skirts look ridiculous, but no more so than the other accoutrements of rehearsal: stage manager-masterminded props which substitute cardboard scythes and broomhandle hoes for the genuine article, or the floorplan with its flight of stairs mapped out with tape in two dimensions, or the beaten-up upright where the rehearsal pianist bangs out a crude approximation of full orchestration.
A tale of two Martins
At the rehearsal of Martin Guerre, a new musical set to run through Feb. 6 at Connecticut’s Hartford Stage Company, there are rehearsal skirts in profusion, and cardboard scythes, and a taped-out flight of stairs, and a gifted rehearsal pianist who successfully conjures the six-piece ensemble that will eventually take his place. And, indeed, all these things look ridiculous, but everyone in the room a significant number, considering the 25-member ensemble and the various echelons of backstage production looks beyond them. And what they see is possibility, or more accurately, a chimera: a production fully realized on opening night just as it was conceived in that roomful of crude approximations and creative people.
It is the best of times; it is the worst of climes: the Christmas season in New England, with a blizzard raging outside. In the gutted-executive-suite-cum-rehearsal-hall in the highrise across the street from Hartford Stage, artistic director Mark Lamos and his team are working the second act of this new musical based on a strange chapter in 16th-century French jurisprudence. The case of Martin Guerre the reluctant husband, the indolent prodigal, the peevish whipping boy who steals away to join the army only to reappear years later a man so much more agreeable to his wife and family that he must face his uncle’s formal charges of imposture has had several incarnations. The most famous is a 1982 film starring that celebrated Gaulish workhorse of cinema, Gerard Depardieu.
Le Retour de Martin Guerre, was not, however and they are emphatic about this at Hartford–the primary source material for this play. Whereas the film focused, for the most part, on Depardieu’s returned Martin, the musical takes its time in its treatment of the circumstances that led to the boy’s flight. In fact, nearly the entire first act is given over to this story. In the film, Martin’s uncle Pierre is, without question, an unsavory character, but his suspicions of the new and improved Martin are, at least at their outset, in the family interest. Here in Hartford, Pierre is a bastard pretender interested not only in the legitimacy the Guerre farm holdings can afford him but in his nephew’s beautiful, abandoned bride as well.
A wife as landed property
And that bride, rechristened Mireille de Rols (the historical figure’s given name was Bertrande; “Well, you can’t sing Bertrande,” confides Laura Harrington, the play’s lyricist/librettist, “and to the ear, it sounds like a man’s name.”), is a much more pro-active character than the woman Nathalie Baye played in the film. Handed from father to father-in-law in a fashion not at all unusual for the period, Mireille is, insofar as the men around her are concerned, a kind of landed property. What she does then, what the historical Bertrande did, must be regarded as remarkable. “She actually re-wrote the script of her life,” as Harrington puts it.
Refusing to accept the lot of woeful wife cast up on the shore of her in-laws’ charity, she assumes the leadership of her household in the face of prejudice and suspicion. There are chauvinistic grumblings among the field hands when she demands they clear the land before the onset of winter “Now the mistress plays the master.” “Now the master is missed.” There are catty accusations “What did you do to make Martin leave you?” But in Little Red Hen-style bravado, Mireille flatly rejects the very idea of defeat–“Will no one help me?” she asks as she sets to work herself. With or without the secours of her fellow workers, she assures us there will be grapes to stomp come harvest.
Like Penelope remaining true to the memory of a truly lackluster Ulysses, she wards off the inappropriate ardor of an odious suitor. And if the devil is at her door in the shape of her husband’s uncle, so, too, is Mireille beset by the encroaching forces of organized Good in the person of the parish priest. Father is not comfortable with Mireille’s almost masculine independence, the pragmatism he interprets as an utter lack of healthy 16th-century fear of God.
These vasty differences between distant history, Martin Guerre’s onscreen incarnation and its new musical turn are the work of Harrington, composer Roger Ames, musical director Sue Anderson, choreographer Liza Gennaro, the design team of Michael Yeargan (sets), Jess Goldstein (costumes), Jennifer Tipton (lights) and David Budries (sound), and, of course, Lamos. Even the actors themselves participate in the motivational chiaroscuro of the story’s rendering; at the time of this rehearsal, the text is still liquid enough to support changes arrived at by committee on the spot. And according to Harrington, a decision was made early on to move from a piece that is entirely sung-through to a script that balances spoken dialogue and song to give the actors more expressional freedom.
As the creative forces at Hartford have imagined them, this Mireille and her reclaimed Martin choose to shore themselves up against the torrent of inevitability which imperils the fragile harmony they’ve managed to jury-rig. And that’s not a bad metaphor for this whole venture. The mounting of a new musical is a daunting thing.
But in rehearsal skirts (where appropriate), carrying cardboard scythes, against a panoply of plywood and concrete, on a taped-out set, as the director, stage managers, author and sundry other personnel look on from behind cafeteria tables laden with scripts, scraps of paper and dirty coffee cups, and as a genuine nor’easter pounds the region, these actors go about the business of converting the potential into the tangible.