Thomas Heywood’s ridiculous rip-roaring romantic romp across the high seas of the English Renaissance era, THE FAIR MAID OF THE WEST, PART I is the latest in the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective’s universally acclaimed productions of rarely seen classics. First published in 1631, the two-part pirate comedy is set (and Part I was probably written) during the reign of Elizabeth I, with the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604) serving as the backdrop for the wacky whirlwind adventure.
The seafaring tale begins at a tavern in an English port town, and follows the swashbuckling exploits of the pure-hearted sword-wielding barmaid Bess Bridges, who serves up drinks while fending off the unwelcome advances of her rowdy patrons. When the gentleman Spencer, to whom she is devoted, murders one of them in defense of her virtue, he is forced to flee the country. So the brave and unwavering Bess assumes the guise of a male, turns pirate (“Methinks I have a manly spirit in me, In this man’s habit”), and leads an outlandish band of buccaneers and buffoons across the ocean to exotic destinations to fight for the English crown and to retrieve her lost love, through a series of improbable twists and turns that could make the most seasoned sailor seasick!
On a serious note, Heywood’s heroine both challenges and upholds traditional female roles of the period (as did his real-life monarch, the Virgin Queen, to whom her fictional namesake Bess–short for Elizabeth—is compared). She becomes a stalwart leader of men in a position usually held by a man, fearless in travel, courageous in battle, and magnanimous to those she conquers; and although desired by all the men she encounters, she remains chaste. She is, according to the play’s subtitle, “a girl worth gold” in the eyes of her time, and a proto-feminist figure for ours. But that underlying message in no way undermines the glorious goofiness of the PAC’s production!
Under the dazzling direction of Charlotte Northeast, who also adapted the work (excising some of the politically-incorrect jingoistic humor of the era and inserting some spirited a cappella sea shanties), an unsinkable ensemble of “lusty lads” and intrepid maids, all spot-on in their rapid-fire timing and exuberant characterizations, delivers humor and heart to the production. Rachel Camp stars as Bess and perfectly embodies her purity, strength, and overwhelming appeal; the ever-excellent Adam Altman impresses as Spencer, her steadfast male counterpart; and Chris Fluck displays the growing integrity of his trusted, and eventually trustworthy, friend Goodlack. Big laughs are provided by Dan Hodge as the hysterically sleazy Roughman, who lusts after Bess; Brandon Pierce in a series of foppish roles and amusing accents; and Robert DaPonte and Eric Scotolati as two well-synchronized clowns who appear throughout the production to deliver uproarious lines and side-splitting sight-gags. Jennifer MacMillan brings her particular brand of dry wit to her turns as Fawcett and Alderman, and noted director KC MacMillan, in her professional acting debut, is a delight as Bess’s wide-eyed and dim-witted servant Clem.
In keeping with the general tone of hilarity, the set design (Katherine Fritz) and props (Molly Warnken)—including a flat sheep cut-out and wooden signposts that identify the swiftly shifting locales–are appropriately silly, and the terrific costumes (also by Fritz) humorously capture the period, cultures, and occupations of the assorted characters. Matt Sharp’s lighting of the multi-level performance space in the historic Broad Street Ministry is expert, and the brilliantly choreographed and executed swordfights (fight direction by Michael Cosenza) are among the zaniest you’ll ever see. Even more than a bottle of rum, THE FAIR MAID OF THE WEST is a Yo-ho-whole lot of fun! [Broad Street Ministry, 315 S. Broad Street] April 1-18, 2015; Philartistscollective.org.