Remember the bit about the villain? He twirls his handlebar mustache repeatedly while he ties a lady to the railroad tracks because she can’t pay the rent. If you know the routine, which is supposed to be funny, you’re dating yourself. But then, so am I.
I’m not sure where that particular parody of 19th-century melodrama originated — vaudeville, I guess — and I’ve never seen an entire show in a similar style until now. It’s called “Maria Marten or the Murder in the Red Barn,” and the program notes for the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective tell us it’s written by Anonymous. I’m not sure whether the production is a spoof of melodrama or is closer to the real thing. And it wasn’t until I left the theater and got on my Internet surfboard that I understood the murder to be actual.
It happened in England in 1827, when a womanizer named William Corder killed a woman named Maria Marten, with whom he’d had a child. It was a terrible thing, and fascinated the public. The story became folk legend – you can find ballads about the couple and yes, an anonymously written play that’s apparently one of several entertainments of the time. The story remained popular into the last century, when it became the basis for several movies.
It’s the sort of thing, in other words, that’s ripe for the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, run by folks who work consistently on area stages and join together in this theater company to unearth works rarely or never seen nowadays. This particular melodrama is about as dumb a play as you can get, and the Collective is playing it to the hammy hilt. The show would be far better, though, if it were funnier. As it is, “Maria Marten or the Murder in the Red Barn” rarely surpasses the mildly amusing mark, even though a talented cast does what it can to make it comical.
I attribute the problem more to the genre than to the production, directed with clever touches by Charlotte Northeast and performed with a constant wink to the audience. Still, the little curiosities of melodrama may have been a big tickler for people 200 years ago – for example, watching a frivolous character drop a shovel or a sack four or five times. Nowadays, once is enough.
And how many times can we laugh at someone exiting a scene by looking offstage toward a keyboard player and commanding: “Andrew! Take me off!” (Andrew Clotworthy, who adroitly plays the original background music he composed, complies each time with a proper riff.)
An exaggerated villainous delivery, probably a scream in its day, also now only goes so far – and two acts is far too much. At the performance I saw, Damon Bonetti gamely gave it his all; he switches roles with Dan Hodge on alternate performances, so that each has the chance to elicit hisses and boos from audiences that are willing. When they’re not playing the rotten William Corder each takes the role of Tim Bobbin, a cowardly boob, dishonest braggart and, I suspect, classic melodramatic type.
The unfortunate Maria Marten is played by Victoria Aaliyah Goins with sweet innocence and, for this show, an unexpected depth, and her sister Anne is a given a fine turn by Sarah Knittel. Several roles are also nailed by Monroe Barrick and Trina Tjersland (among them Maria Marten’s mom and dad), Devon Sinclair and Brian McCann. McCann’s sets — a handsome portal over the stage and evocative painted backdrops for the scenes – are in the style of an 1800s traveling show.
The production is thoughtfully designed: Bridget Brennan’s costumes feel just right for the time the play is set, and the show’s lighting (Robert A. Thorpe and James P. Lewis) makes the villainous Corder look downright evil. That’s essential – there can be no question about good and evil in a piece like this one.
“Maria Marten or the Murder in the Red Barn,” produced by Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, runs through June 23 at the Louis Bluver Theater at the Drake, on South Hicks Street. Hicks runs to the side of the Drake Apartments, on Spruce Street between 15th and 16th Streets. Information: philartistscollective.org.