The suspense that lurks within the plot of Polly Pen's new musical, The Night Governess, is also active behind the scenes at New Jersey's McCarter Theater. However, the suspense 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.
For Governess, Pen has adapted Louisa May Alcott's 19th century thriller short-story, "Behind a Mask (subtitled "A Woman's Power"). Picked to stage the piece 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 often 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 would direct Pen in a production of Craig Lucas' Reckless, at the Hartford Stage. Lest we forget Pen is also an accomplished actress with appearances in the Off-Broadway hit Charlotte Sweet, in the Broadway one-night-stand, The Utter Glory of Morrisey Hall, plus three times in the 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."
As 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, a 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," which tells a short metrical story, often in eight-syllable lines (according to Webster), 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. She explains Pen's uniquely whimsical musical style as switching 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, about 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 hapless invalid employers' family for her own mysterious ends, is essentially a means to more metaphysical ends. It is to these ends, that are, in the musical, pure Pen, that Peterson sees as the most intriguing elements. Previously subtitled "The Story of a Knowledge Vampire," The Night Governess unfolds as a 19th century nightmare, in which Muir's mysterious "night lessons" to her charges, turned somnambulists, introduce 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" (citing Shaw and Brecht), says Peterson, who says what she found initially most compelling in the musical is a 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 the musical takes.
Admitting that she felt the presence of Ernotte 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, that included Goblin Market, 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 playwright-in-residence, Pen has been working on The Night Governess for the past three years. Peterson became involved in the musical last only 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 I think 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, in Peterson's words, "a process of "struggle and agreement, moving and cutting."
About the time three months ago when casting had begun, Peterson, who had not seen it in workshop but 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 to it indirectly to The Waves, a musical play she co-adapted and directed based on a literary text by Virginia Woolf. "As with 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 twenties. One of the hurdles for Peterson was re-discovering skills that she had ten years back. She sees musical theater has having stronger guideposts than non-musical theater. Although about two-thirds of 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 Governess is the most daunting production of her career 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, all in praise of the Governess company. 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, who appeared as Lady Caroline in Titanic and was most recently in The Torch-Bearers off Broadway and in the workshop of Night Governess. Robert Sella, most recently in The Home of the Brave, at Jewish Repertory Theater, appeared both off and on Broadway in Side Man. John Jellison, who appeared on Broadway in the revival of On the Town, will be familiar to New Jersey audiences who saw Johnny Pye and the Foolkiller and Twist, both at the George Street Playhouse. Taking a leave from the road-tour of Cabaret, is Alma Cuervo, a veteran of Pen musicals, Songs On A Shipwrecked Sofa and Christina Alberta's Father. Also in the cast are Danielle Ferland (Little Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods), Erin Hill (Lulu in Cabaret), Danny Gurwin (The Scarlet Pimpernel) and Mary Stout, who played the role of Mrs. Fairfax in Jane Eyre at the La Jolla Playhouse (a role she created at the Toronto world premiere).
A native of Santa Cruz, California, and currently bi-coastal, Peterson got her undergraduate degree in Theater and English from Yale in 1983. An Obie-Award 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 productions 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 Night Governess was about. "Although it's about truth and lies, it's also about identity and learning to be fully human. When this mysterious woman comes into a sleepy family, she starts to turn their world upside down. They are shaken and changed, 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 the McCarter Theater is the largest theater she has ever directed in. Interestingly it was while Peterson was still in college and wanting to be an actress 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 an impression, as the suspense mounts.

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Key Subjects: 
Lisa Peterson, Night Governess; McCarter Theater; Polly Pen
Writer: 
Simon Saltzman
Miscellaneous: 
[Note: The Night Governess, directed by Lisa Peterson, opened May 5 at New Jersey's McCarter Theater]
Date: 
May 2000