In the program notes to the new musical Red Barn, which he co-authored with his wife, the show's director, Melissa Chalsma, actor-playwright David Melville invites us to Google the term “anthropodermic bibliopegy.” This refers to books documenting the judicial proceedings of a murder trial. These books are bound in the dissected human skin of the convicted killer, after the execution.
The practice goes back centuries and was not always carefully implemented. (There are stories of petrified nipples being sighted on one or more book covers.) The rare book collections at several Ivy League colleges are alleged to contain examples of such bindings, but Melville's reason for mentioning it has to do with just such a manuscript that describes the trial proceedings of the 1828 Red Barn murder trial in the village of Polstead, England, where Melville grew up.
The manuscript gets a mention near the end of the musical (presented as a workshop by Independent Shakespeare Company at Atwater Crossing), which follows the life and execution by hanging of the murderer, a bachelor gentleman farmer named William Corder (Matthew Michael Hurley). He wooed and promised to marry a mole-catcher's daughter, Maria (pronounced Mariah, and performed by Mary Guilliams). The isolated Red Barn is where Corder took her for sex, resulting in an out-of-wedlock child, who came to a suspicious end at the age of 1 week. (This was, at least, the third child whom attractive Maria bore out of wedlock, each one to a different man.)
William kept insisting to Maria that he planned to elope with her to Ipswich, which he never did. The musical raises the possibility that William further protected his domestic tranquility by feeding his infant rat poison, though, right in front of the dead baby, he pleads in the Red Barn to his despondent mistress that the child's death was just a terrible “accident.”
In that same Red Barn, Maria's putrefied corpse was discovered in 1827. Let's just say she died of unnatural causes. For the several months that her body was rotting, Corder successfully persuaded her father and stepmother (played by Robert Alan Beuth and Claudia de Vasco) that their daughter was living contentedly in London (where he had relocated and married another woman). Corder managed this through a series of letters he wrote to them. They found it odd that she never wrote, but they believed him. He was, after all, a gentleman, and they had no expectation of speaking with her directly.
As already mentioned, this is a workshop production of a piece that's still in development. As such, it has much to recommend it. The ensemble of more than a dozen — some of whom double as musicians (David Bickford on piano, Melville and Ashley Nguyen on guitar, and musical director Dan Schwartz on bass) — lead to some stirring chorales and stage pictures, as directed by Chalsma. Melville's song cycle runs the gamut, from country folk and rock to Kurt Weill–like dissonances. (The musical contains echoes of both The Threepenny Opera and Sweeney Todd.)
At this stage of development, it remains more anecdotal than universal, capitalizing on the moral and ethical turpitude of an English con man, someone between Tartuffe, Mack the Knife and Sweeney Todd. Yet so far, William Corder lacks their nihilistic and annihilistic convictions.
Red Barn aches to be a revenge melodrama, and this can happen once William Corder believes in something, other than weaseling out of awful predicaments of his own making. It comes close, once the village hunts him down and drags him to the gallows. Still, criminals like Mack the Knife and Sweeney Todd rage against the injustice and hypocrisy of authority. They possess charm, charisma and, to a certain extent, followers. They earn the epithet, protagonist. William Corder likewise needs to stand for or against something with sharper focus. Something sharper than expedience. Once that discovery is made, Red Barn has the capacity to transform an exotic and macabre local folk tale into a legend.
Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starts: Oct. 26. Continues through Nov. 18, 2012