Melodrama and swashbuckling dovetail in Riverside’s ‘Fair Maid of the West’

Riverside Theatre presents: Fair Maid of the West

Lower City Park Festival Stage — through July 10

Fair Maid of the West at Riverside Theatre
The cast of Riverside Theatre’s production of ‘Fair Maid of the West’ — photo by Bob Goodfellow

Last week, Riverside Theatre returned to Lower City Park with Pericles, a Shakespearean adventure rife with love, loss and improbable reunions. This weekend marks the opening of Thomas Heywood’s Fair Maid of the West, which echoes Pericles in its treatment of young adventurers overcoming impossible odds on their travels. Heywood’s piece (adapted here by Kevin Theis) stands out among its contemporaries in that a woman takes the lead as not only the moral center of the play, but as part of the swashbuckling melodrama, with the same unflinching bravado as her male counterparts.

Fair Maid of the West, directed by Sam Osheroff with fight direction by Paul Kalina, contains elements of comedy, romance and melodrama. After Bess, the titular maid (played by Kris Danford) hears of the apparent death of her fiancĂ© Spencer (William Goblirsch), she uses the money from his will to fund a pilgrimage to find his body. Joining her on this journey are: the brave Roughman (Patrick Du Laney), who she converted from a cowardly buffoon to a heroic strongman, Spencer’s friend Goodlack (Eric Damon Smith), who was going to steal her inheritance before being transported by her virtue, and the wisecracking bartender Clem (Ari Craven), who ensures us this journey will have a good deal of comic relief.

Fair Maid of the West at Riverside
Rian Jairell as Mulisheg; Jody Hovland as Alcade — photo by Bob Goodfellow
What makes this more of a melodrama than a comedy is the conversions of characters who begin as exaggerated villains into likable heroes. Again and again, Bess and her bands of do-gooders overcome their adversaries and, instead of delivering their comeuppance, set them free to go on to live more virtuous lives. Even the exotic foreign adversaries from the kingdom of Fez (Rian Jairell does a delightful turn here as the powerful and devious Mulisheg) are treated with a respect that seems to put Heywood ahead of his times; while acknowledging the huge cultural divide between the worlds of the Muslim rulers and their Christian prisoners, he pushes a universal understanding of right and wrong that rises above race and religion.

This melodramatic moralizing could get old quite fast if not for the fast-paced swashbuckling narrative that Osheroff and Kalina exploit to make the piece a fun, energetic ride. Theis’ adaptation takes two of Heywood’s plays (the original Fair Maid was popular enough to elicit a sequel) and condenses them down to one action-packed script. This production does start a bit slow, but it takes off as soon as Danford and Dulaney square off for the first time. These two are very energetic performers, both very physical, and they push each other to raise the stakes with every beat. Craven is also a great foil to Dulaney, playing off of Roughman’s brash arrogance with Clem’s sardonic wit; it’s fun to see the pair grow to be friends by the end of the adventure.

Fair Maid of the West at Riverside Theatre
Bess (Kris Danford) and Roughman (Patrick Du Laney) face off — photo by Bob Goodfellow

In addition to the acting, the fight choreography makes Fair Maid an exciting excursion. There are quite a few fights in this show, from short duels to complicated melees that take up the entire stage. All of these moments are fast and violent and fun, with lots of great visual gags. The ensemble works very well together, twirling around each other as the focus of attention changes from moment to moment. In a piece that plays a bit like an Elizabethan The Princess Bride, it would be a shame to skimp on the swordfighting, and Kalina certainly delivers.

If you’re looking for an excuse to hang out in the park and you like light-hearted adventure stories, check out The Fair Maid of the West. Riverside has done a great job dusting off this classic play and delivering a fun and frantic night of theatre. The show runs through July 10, in rep with Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Tickets are available online, or by calling the box office at 319-338-7672.

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