Monday, March 26, 2007

volume of smoke

"Tragedy is nothing new ... You just wait until the next generation comes. The same will happen to them, soon enough. And the next. And the next."

-The Reverend Wife, volume of smoke

volume of smoke, a post-mortem/autopsy of sorts written by Clay McLeod Chapman and directed by Isaac Butler, recounts the Richmond Theatre Fire in 1811 that killed 72 people in a very fractured yet cohesive narrative.

The script, which is based on interviews conducted with survivors of the fire in an unpublished 19th Century manuscript, weaves 20 different interconnected stories and testimonies about the fire and the chaos that ensued, with the points of view ranging from the actors on the stage, to a little girl's excited recounting of going to the theatre, to a musician stuck in the orchestra pit while the fire took place, to the theatre-owner's guilt about the event and erecting a church on the site to alleviate said guilt.

A cast of six - Katie Dietz, Abe Goldfarb, Daryl Lathon, Ronica V. Reddick, Brian Silliman and Molly Wright Stuart - play the multiple roles and recount the same event from multiple angles.
Some of the stories recounting the fire are sad. Some are funny. Some are horrific.

Some standout stories/testimonies were: a man taking his wife to the theatre and wanting to hold off on leaving until everyone else left; the musician in the orchestra pit watching - and hearing - the fire ravage the instruments; a man walking blindly over bodies in the hopes of finding an escape route; a woman explaining that no dessert dish compares to the sweetness of that first breath of fresh air upon escaping that burning building; and a preacher believing the fire was indeed God's work and condemning acting yet using the tools of an actor to deliver his sermons.

It is a bit hard to describe volume of smoke because it's a fractured narrative yet linear (the first third deals with the theatre before it catches first, the middle part is all about the fire and the third part deals with the aftermath); it's experimental yet frank and straightforward. The play deals with one simple event (a devastating fire and its aftermath) from multiple angles, sometimes all at once.

Despite by difficulty in describing volume of smoke, I can say that seeing it is very worth your while: well written, well acted and well directed.

I've always been a fan of fractured narratives that focus on a cohesive theme, using varied methods to convey a unified idea. The production of volume of smoke does this quite well.

The set by Tim McMath and costumes by Sydney Maresca are excellent, the former managing to be both sparse and simple yet beautiful and evocative of the time period and the latter also accurately and handsomely suggests the period. Both give the stage a nice sepia toned look.

Although Mr. Chapman's writing may not be for everybody, it's certainly right up my alley. He has a unique voice and style that I find very captivating and appealing (as seen in his Pumpkin Pie Show) that some may find off-putting (possibly one of those rules of the game when you're dealing with such a unique voice). His work is similar to that of a campfire storyteller, something you don't see too often in theatre nowadays (with rare, singular exceptions - the fascinating-on-paper yet insufferably-boring-in-execution Faith Healer comes to mind). I'm quickly becoming a fan of his work.

volume of smoke runs through April 7 at the 14th Street Y Theatre. For tickets click here.

Preaching to performers,

James "Fire Marshall" Comtois

Photo: (left to right) Molly Wright Stuart, Ronica V. Reddick and Daryl Lathon in volume of smoke. Photo by Aaron Epstein.

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