One of the most intriguing tales of the French medieval period is that of a peasant soldier who posed as a Basque farmer, Martin Guerre, in order to claim Guerre's land and his beautiful wife.
The American premire of "Martin Guerre" at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis is the newest musical by the writer-composer team Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, who brought us "Les Misrables" and "Miss Saigon." The show evokes the 16th-century story with luscious music and a bold spirit.
While its sensibility is decidedly modern and its emotional rhythms are occasionally flawed, at its core it is as captivating as the original story - a tale as well known in France as Robin Hood is in England.
It is likely to be a big hit as it travels around the United States after its highly successful and award-winning run in the London West End (despite mixed reviews) earlier this year. It will end up in New York next spring. Beautiful songs like "I'm Martin Guerre," "Welcome to the Land," "Don't," and the comic "Dear Louison" approach those in "Les Mis." Other tunes grow on you.
"Martin Guerre" is both a love story and a mystery. Set against the backdrop of religious wars between Roman Catholics and Protestants, the tale has provided the inspiration for one terrific movie ("The Return of Martin Guerre"), one dreary movie ("Sommersby"), and various works of literature.
In this newest version, 14-year-old Martin is not ready for the obligations of marriage when he is wed to his childhood friend, Bertrande. Meanwhile, rival Guillaume loves Bertrande and tries to persuade her family to give her to him.
Martin is beaten by the village priest and he runs away to the religious wars where he bonds with his com-rade-in-arms, Arnaud. A badly wounded Martin makes Arnaud, who looks just like Martin, promise to tell Bertrande he's sorry that he deserted her.
After his arrival, Arnaud and Bertrande pose as husband and wife on the assumption that Martin is dead. Years of peace and prosperity follow and Bertrande waits for her first child. But Guillaume accuses Arnaud of imposture. When the court takes up the case, the real Martin returns. The incident causes the religious wars to flare up again, since Arnaud is a Protestant.
It's not as true to the medieval spirit as was "The Return of Martin Guerre." The operetta's lessons are meant to satisfy 20th-century tastes rather than embody a medieval world view. Indeed, the production resonates more with the recent Kosovo conflict than the ecclesiastical wars of the 16th century.
Like Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," a play about 17th-century religious intolerance, there's a lot of calling on God and very little authentic religious feeling in "Martin Guerre." The religious references in "Guerre" are entirely historical.
While religious wars all bear the same stamp of intolerance and superstition on them, there is something missing here. These people in the play would have been deeply religious, many of them sincerely so. Given the nature of the subject, a humble hymn or one authentically spiritually minded character might have given the story more verity.
It's also oddly dissatisfying that the story keeps turning on itself emotionally - the villagers are joyful and kind one moment and then spin on a dime to be excitable and nasty the next.
Still, there is more right with the show than there is wrong with it - it is never boring. As a love story, as an attack on superstition, and even in the rich details of village life, it is largely a delight. It is best in its duets, in scenes of the common harvest and a peasant wedding as community activity.
A highlight is the village fool, Benoit, who is wiser than everyone else (portrayed by the talented Michael Arnold), even if he does caper with his lady love, the scarecrow Louison. Charming, funny, and kind, he embodies the "holy fool" of medieval legends. Hugh Panaro as Martin and Stephen R. Buntrock as Arnaud are well-matched musically, since both have powerful voices and are made up to resemble one other believably.
And then, there are plenty of special effects to satisfy those who love spectacle on stage - a huge cannon booming in the early war scenes and a real burning back wall. Wait 'til it reaches Broadway - it will no doubt rival the falling chandeliers and helicopters of other famous productions.
*'Martin Guerre' runs through Nov. 7 at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. It then travels to Detroit, Dec. 1; Washington, D.C., Dec. 23; Seattle, Jan 22; Los Angeles, Feb 16; and New York, April 15.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society