Review: Joyously unearthing ‘The Fair Maid of the West’

 Rachel Camp, Adam Altman and in the background at right, Chris Fluck in the Philadelphia Artists' Collective production of 'The Fair Maid of the West.' (Photo courtesy of Ashley LaBonde)

Rachel Camp, Adam Altman and in the background at right, Chris Fluck in the Philadelphia Artists' Collective production of 'The Fair Maid of the West.' (Photo courtesy of Ashley LaBonde)

Don’t be surprised if you become visibly giddy after “The Fair Maid of the West” begins, and if you haven’t been able to settle down by the end. Everyone around you is likely to be the same. The Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, which has developed a specialty in digging up long-forgotten works and turning them into gems, is at the top of its game.

“The Fair Maiden of the West” was written sometime in the early 1600s – no one seems to know exactly when – by Thomas Heywood, a contemporary of William Shakespeare. It’s a comedy from the beginning and a sea-borne swashbuckler by the end. Every so many years some stage company or another will rediscover it. The play is really two distinct plays under a single title; locally-based theater artist Charlotte Northeast has shaped Heywood’s first play into a two-act funfest, and directs it with great flair for Philadelphia Artists’ Collective.

The collective is just what it says – a group of local theater artists who work all over the region (and sometimes elsewhere) but want to run their own company to do work they probably couldn’t otherwise do. They take risks, are highly attentive to shaping their projects and have the zeal that comes when people take on assignments they themselves have created. The downside of the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective is that it hasn’t the money for long runs, so if you want to see “The Fair Maid of the West,” which opened last week, you have only through Saturday.

What you’ll see is a sheer delight – the story of a young woman of common birth who keeps a tavern running while guys run after her. She’s pretty and down-to-earth and solid in her judgments, and she shoos away all but one of her admirers, a gallant named Spencer who’s eventually wounded in a fight that he survives. The news comes back to her that he’s dead, and the factual mix-up accounts for much of the action.

In this version, it also accounts for much of the fun – and that’s where Northeast’s direction comes into play. There’s more inventive stage shtik in a scene of “Fair Maid of the West” than in entire vaudeville acts, and all of it’s appropriate to the plot and in character. In a sword fight (Michael Cosenza’s fight choreography) people may battle themselves, a weapon in each hand. A scalawag may remove her eyepatch, but only when she speaks. When a Moroccan royal paces, his two put-upon minions may do the same, perfectly timed. Put together enough of this stuff, merge it with characters who have their own quirks, and you’ve got a rollick.

Rachel Camp is perfectly straightforward as the maid of the title, just as she should be, and Adam Altman is much the same as her lover. All around them (in Katherine Fritz’s neat costumes) are zanies – led by Dan Hodge playing a major buffoon, plus Robert DaPonte, Chris Fluck, Brandon Pierce, KC MacMillan, Eric Scotolati and Jennifer MacMillan. Oh, those Elizabethans – they sure know how to mix it up – even moreso when modern theater artists provide additional incentives.

“Fair Maid of the West,” produced by Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, runs through April 18 at the playing space inside Broad Street Ministry, Broad Street between Spruce and Pine Streets.

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