Putting the drama in melodrama

PAC presents Maria Marten, or, The Murder in the Red Barn’ (second review)

3 minute read
PAC's performances are strong but its lighting muddies the stage. (Photo by Ashley Labonde, Wide Eyed Studios ©2018.)
PAC's performances are strong but its lighting muddies the stage. (Photo by Ashley Labonde, Wide Eyed Studios ©2018.)

Philadelphia Artists Collective (PAC) brings a gung-ho and fiercely talented ensemble together to present Maria Marten, or, the Murder in the Red Barn, a truly ridiculous, anonymously written melodrama whose entire plot is summarized in the title.

Maria Marten is based on the true and sensational story of a woman murdered by her lover, William Corder, in 1872. Several dramatizations of the story, including a film, have been produced since the original stage production, which debuted shortly after Corder’s trial.

The story’s sensationalism grows inversely in proportion to its diminished accuracy. Like any melodrama, maybe more so, Maria Marten is a very silly play.

Odd tastes

PAC has always been an actor’s company. Its members consistently deliver skillful, memorable performances of odd scripts. It’s hard not to wonder what would happen if all this talent and dedication to craft were poured into worthier writing. Still, PAC’s passion for its projects makes the company what it is, and it’s hard to begrudge its members what they love, however baffling.

Damon Bonetti’s delight in the script (alternating the roles of William Corder and Tim Bobbin with Dan Hodge) shows in his characterization of Bobbin as a charming, lovable 19th-century bro who is English countryside by way of South Philly. Sara Knittel’s timing and physical comedy, as Maria's sister Anne, are particularly sharp, and Trina Tjersland shows wide range, playing both a comedic carnival barker and Maria’s sympathetic and loving mother.

The role of villainous Corder gives Hodge plenty of delicious asides, and while he relishes delivering dastardly lines to the crowd, he somehow manages to make mustache twirling feel like a subtle tic he invented just for this character, instead of one of theater’s oldest clichés.

Bonetti (left) and Hodge alternate the villain's role each night. (Photo by Ashley Labonde, Wide Eyed Studios ©2018.)
Bonetti (left) and Hodge alternate the villain's role each night. (Photo by Ashley Labonde, Wide Eyed Studios ©2018.)

Actors' actors

The production is a true ensemble piece and a look at what happens when actors who love their work take silliness seriously. Partial credit goes to Charlotte Northeast, an actor’s director who keeps things moving forward. Controlled direction means that while the play offers many opportunities to ham things up, her actors never get self-indulgent or make choices that diminish the script.

Design is less rigorous. Brian McCann is a talented painter, and turning the Drake's Bluver Theater into a little tin-can proscenium is the perfect approach, which is why it’s a shame the facades are wrinkled and not completely attached to the wall (onstage, McCann displays devastating comedic timing and restraint in a series of small roles.)

Lights (Robert A. Thorpe and James P. Lewis) are muddy, dark, and distracting, missing an opportunity to complement McCann’s vintage footlights with a glowing gaslight look.

Bridget Brennan’s costumes serve well, particularly the villain’s iconic top hat and swirling coat. However, Brennan didn’t seem to know what to do with the hair of Victoria Aaliyah Goins’s Maria, all the more noticeable next to Knittel’s intricate Jane Austen curls. Period live music by Andrew Clotworthy holds the work together and creates a sense of place and motion.

PAC loves theater and they love acting. The joy in their work is so apparent here, it’s hard not to forgive the ridiculous script and any small flaws in the design. Northeast’s director’s notes attempt to elevate the play and pull its moralistic lesson of the 1800s into 2018, which is an unnecessary stretch. Its relevance is in the commitment to doing something just because you love it.

To read Cameron Kelsall's review, click here.

What, When, Where

Maria Marten, or, The Murder in the Red Barn. By Anonymous, Charlotte Northeast directed. Philadelphia Artists’ Collective. Through June 24, 2018, at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 341 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (267) 521-2210 or​​

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