Sunday, March 25, 2007

PLAY: "volume of smoke"

As the reverend's wife puts it so well in Clay McLeod Chapman's 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." But while the idea itself may be unfortunately universal, the powerful expression of it, the mournful exclamation ... these have a uniqueness of sorrow all their own. This powerful play most resembles The Laramie Project in its mostly monologued presentation, but the setting (Richmond, 1811) gives it a resonant elocution and dignified declamation that is both theatrically fresh and emotionally current. Although I have not read the book from which this was adapted (John F. Watson's "Calamity at Richmond, Being a Narrative of the Affecting Circumstances Attending the Awful Conflagration of the Theatre"), the theatrical presentation lends not only an irony to the narrative, but a stark immediacy, and a relevance that links the entire audience in remembrance of seventy otherwise unremembered souls.

Clay McLeod Chapman is a dark playwright, and his lines simmer with a bitter sarcasm as this brilliant six person ensemble (3M, 3F) slowly reconstruct the fire, from the blame cast between the stagehand, property man, and carpenter to the personal stories of the actors, orchestra members, audience, and children. Some of the characters have survived and retell the story as vagrant survivors, drifting across the stage like living ghosts, but some of the characters are actually dead, and speak scornfully to the present actors who recreate the past. The lines are squeamishly beautiful, honestly sad, and filled with ash-blackened imagery (like Tim McMath's excellent set).

For instance, a musician remarks upon the way the fire burnt the instruments in such a way that "it sounded as if the fire itself were playing the music now." Rather than the expected flight, characters are transfixed in the heat of the moment, like one who runs back inside to find her daughter: "I had to turn around and force my way through the burning doors, past all the people piling up around the exit. It was like turning the tides, like some salmon working its way upstream." Or the tragically mischievous child whose spanking is interrupted only by his sudden trampling: "What it must've felt like to step on some little boy's bony frame, the snap of his ribs resonating through their shoe. What that softness must've felt like from under their foot, realizing they'd just trampled over me. If they even realized it at all."

Hand-in-hand with such exquisite text (to use John Patrick Shanley's slivering meaning) is Chapman's longtime collaborator, Isaac Butler. Butler, who also produced the show (along with Anne Love), has made it into a passion project, and all of the individual pieces of the evening are flawlessly executed, from the darkly underscored remixes of classical Richmond sounds by Erik Sanko to Sydney Maresca's dulled yet frilled costuming of the men and women of the cast. The set creeps in shadow whether the lights emanate from a single, ghostly lightbulb or from the various spotlights.

Just as Butler has gathered such excellence in the technical, he has realized the physical, too. The set is the detritus of the theatre: barrels lie gutted, chairs are there to be flung around at will (at times to echo the sounds of bodies thudding to the ground from the balcony), ladders serve as steps to heaven or, when collapsed, as the gates to hell, and chests sit around, the magic of possibility blackened out of them by fire. The actors double as props as well, highlighted occasionally for pantomiming example or as a necessary scene partner, and the overall effect is that of an eerie waltz between past and present.

On their own, the actors excel as well, each carrying a variety of roles, from Abe Goldfarb's preening ham to his counterpoint in Molly Wright Stuart's emotional "The Bleeding Nun." There are wistful memories from Brian Silliman and meticulous recounts from Daryl Lathon, disgruntled rage from Ronica V. Reddick and emotionless seething from Katie Dietz: excellent work on all fronts and by all accounts.

At just over seventy minutes, volume of smoke is a swift tale, but it manages to entangle the passion of theater with the emotion of life with a real verve and poignancy. There are observations not only on the strange beauty of fire, but comparisons between the godforsaken theater and the god-blessed Church (different only in scope, they are both stages), not to mention the recreation of a rhyming play-within-a-play. Chapman uses verbal devices, like a mathematical tallying of all the bones lost to the blaze, and Butler meets him with a theatrical blocking of the action that grows from a slow, crepitant static to a shifting, sorrowful height. It's a great partnership, and it makes for some great theater.

volume of smoke is an excellent contemporary play that has received a thrilling treatment by Isaac Butler, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys the theater.

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