René Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt wrote more than 100 plays in the early 19th century—many of them starring dogs. Yet he somehow found time to pen a short essay in 1832 entitled “Melodrama.” In celebration of that maligned genre, he confessed, “I shall tell you that I go to the theater either to laugh or weep. Woe to the author who leaves the spectator unmoved!”
Woe then, to Polybe + Seats, now premiering the English translation of Pixérécourt’s 1829 true-crime black romance Alice, or the Scottish Gravediggers. A smart and ambitious company, Polybe + Seats have occupied a small pre-Revolutionary abode in Park Slope known as the Old Stone House. On a dark and slimy night in late October, the timbered ceiling, stone walls, flickering candles, and lowering piano music seemed poised to offer gothic chills. But this tale, of a virtuous orphan damsel spurned by her lover and snatched by the titular gravediggers, remains oddly unaffecting.
In a recent interview in The Brooklyn Rail, director Jessica Silsby Brater spoke of her desire to avoid a camp or ironic approach to melodrama. That’s laudable, but she doesn’t seem eager to take the piece on its own terms either. The play is staged in the middle of a narrow rectangle, with audiences on each of the long sides. Observing the action involves rotating the neck, as at a tennis match, and the visual presence of the other half of the audience makes the world of the play less than immersive.
Short scenes written by the cast and crew meant to contextualize grave robbing further distance the spectators from the story. And the actors, good as they are, seem to gesture toward emotion rather than impart it, which again keeps the audience at bay. It’s not necessarily wrong to take a cerebral approach to melodrama. Indeed, many scholars have argued that the popular genre does some surprisingly intellectual heavy-lifting, concerning itself with the search for the numinous in a secular world. But neither does this production explore these ethical questions.
Alice is in some ways a clever show, and it’s clear in every scene that its creators have spent weeks and months exhuming it, studying it, shaping it. Yet the result, though painstaking, isn’t nearly as sensational or terrifying as it might be. This is one of the rare melodramas to feature an unhappy ending, a heroine undone by love and circumstance. But at the play’s close, with poor Alice horribly expired, there wasn’t a wet eye in the house.