A 19th-century-style theatrical production on the lawn of a Georgian mansion sounds like a charming, elegant diversion. But on a Saturday at the Riversdale estate in Riverdale Park, Md., theatergoers must contend with plenty of uncomfortable elements. First it’s the manic whirr of lusty cicadas. Then the chatter of wine-guzzling, paper-fan-rattling neighbors. Then, well, the smells of those neighbors, crammed into a tent on a sultry night. And most frightening of all: men in nautical garb. Singing. “We always are ready! Steady, boys, steady!”
“Back before television, this was what people did for entertainment,” says Buff Huntley, assistant director of the New Old Theater Company’s production of Black-Eyed Susan. At Riversdale for a three-day run last weekend, the 1829 nautical melodrama by British dramatist Douglas Jerrold is the company’s first attempt to simulate the traveling-theater experience of that pre-idiot-box time.
The brainchild of Severn, Md.’s, Steven Lampredi, New Old is rooted in one of the actor and director’s formative experiences: going backstage at a melodrama organized by his theatrically inclined mother. “What was on the actor’s face up close wasn’t what you saw from the audience,” the 48-year-old recalls. “And then I saw the buzz saw—and it was made of wood.”
Lampredi remembers being enraptured by the effectiveness of the artifice, and his own stage career has included forays into the stylized forms of commedia dell’arte and mime. Two months ago, Lampredi placed ads on theatrical bulletin boards seeking actors for a production “only slightly adapted to suit a modern audience.” The two dozen or so respondents included Huntley, a Victorian-history aficionado from Alexandria who was vital in helping the fledgling company escape anachronism—even though, on Saturday, she can’t do a thing about the ice-cream truck that has parked nearby, tinkling “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
The all-volunteer troupe had to learn not only the script, but also the conventions of 19th-century performance: Actors faced the audience instead of each other, with no amplification and under the light of candle lamps and lanterns. And gestures, says Huntley, who studied vintage photographs and elocution manuals, were highly codified. There were specific arm movements for each emotion, making it easier for audiences of the day to follow the plot even if they couldn’t make out the words. “One contemporary wrote of an actor looking like a windmill,” Huntley laughs.
On Saturday, New Old’s actors keep things enthusiastically broad as rake after rake tries to separate Susan’s sailor hero, Sweet William, from his lovely wife. To add yet another a period touch, the audience is encouraged to cheer and boo, causing Kim Curtis, who portrays villainous Doggrass, to sneer at the crowd as he slithers offstage.
“People laugh at melodrama,” Huntley says afterward. But she notes that the genre has a vital place in literary history: “People like Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville”—who might have based Billy Budd on Susan—“saw it and were inspired to write by it.”
Lampredi, encouraged by the show’s warm reception and the sheer fun his troupe is having on its maiden voyage, envisions bringing Susan and other 18th- and 19th-century plays to regional historical sites. “They’re like a time capsule,” says Lampredi. “I like Shakespeare, too, but these are so obscure. It’s a secret, like it’s locked up.” —Pamela Murray Winters