There is certainly no lack of intellectual weight present in Frank Cossa's new play, The Trials of Martin Guerre. Indeed, it seems that each scene offers the audience yet another aspect of human nature to be digested. Most of us know the original story through its stage musical versions and/or the films it inspired, but Cossa has breathed new life into this old tale of impersonation, passion, love, and betrayal.
The quiet medieval town of Artegat is racked with scandal and excitement when a man returns from nearly a decade at war and claims to be the titular character. Accused by his family and the village clergy as an imposter attempting to claim Martin's land and modest wealth, the veteran is defended only by his wife, the lovely Bertrande de Rose, and is subsequently put on trial.
Greatly enriched by the intellectual bantering between Ferrieres (Thomas McCann), the Crown's court representative, and Jean de Coras (Joseph Kamal), a well-known magistrate of his day, the play evolves into a meditation on the conflict between predestination and free will (which also happens to be at the center of the religious wars occurring at that time). Touching performances by Jeff Berry (the Martin on trial) and Susan E. Matus (Bertrande) lend weight to this central theme: Bertrande is convinced that this whole scenario was created by God as a way to test her, while Martin declares he has returned to Artegat as his own man for nothing more than her love.
The members of the supporting cast give strong performances as well. The minimalist costumes and few stage props grant a dignified grace and allow the play to be borne on the strength of its dialogue and themes, rather than theatrical tricks, quaint surprises, or flashy pyrotechnics.
Perhaps it is the intellectual vigor of The Trials of Margin Guerre that turns out to be the play's major stumbling block. The dual themes of Martin Guerre's true identity and the debate between free will and destiny are not quite as congruent as Cossa seems to think they are. At the end of the production, we find ourselves with slightly too little information concerning either theme. It should also be noted that the fiery and fascinating character of Jean de Coras prompts more questions than answers, questions that leave the ending hanging and make us imagine an unnecessary sequel.
The Trials of Martin Guerre is a theater experience easily worth your money and time, one that will provide much fodder for discussion after the final curtain is drawn. If the run is extended and some of the play's idiosyncracies are dealt with, it might well become a standard stage version of this endlessly fascinating tale.