You know those surveys that theater companies occasionally conduct to find out what type of patrons (their ages, income, news sources, preferred gum brand) come to their shows? Playwright Clay McCleod Chapman does that—only in a much more poetic, stylized and less-calculated fashion—with his play Volume of Smoke, now receiving a sizzling production by Audacity Theatre Lab.
His survey is not only about the patrons, though.
The play attempts, in utterly theatrical documentary-style, to get at the heart of what victims, survivors and Monday morning-quarterbacks thought of the real-life Richmond Theater fire in 1811. That tragedy killed 72 people in Richmond, Virginia, on the day after Christmas. There are probably innumerable differences in audiences now and 200 years ago, but Volume thoughtfully makes the case that the people in a theater building at any given performance—the audience, the folks onstage and behind the scenes—are a diverse cross-section of humanity.
Directed by Ruth Engel, the production transpires on a spare set of 19th century backstage items (ladder, wood chairs, counterweights, a large clothes trunk that allows for minor costume changes). Audacity's staging uses an ensemble of six (Oscar Contreras, Elizabeth Evans, Rhianna Mack, Angela Parsons, Chris Piper and Tyson Rinehart), playing multiple roles in chain of brief scenarios, commenting on the disaster of Dec. 26, 1811.
Some audience members were children whose hands broke free from their mothers' in the scramble after the candle-sparked flames broke out, and knew they were doomed. Some were heroes, with brave stories of concern for others' safety.
Many of them were theater people, involved in the show that was being performed, or who had worked at that theater before. There's the full-of-himself actor who has played Hamlet and all the great roles (played with dead-on arrogance by Rinehart); the actress starring in the title role of the show that was playing when the fire broke, The Bleeding Nun; the low-paid laborer who does the scene changes for the show and is never given a second thought by anyone onstage or in front of it; and of course, the playwright, who knows that of all the theater players, it's his work that will live on.
And what about the lowly musicians in the orchestra pit? As one actor states, "Who'd mourn the loss of the musicians?" Everyone who works in theater will grin at the sly attack on the caste system within the arts—which is really no different from any other profession.
In one of the more vivid scenes, a man (Rinehart again) tells how he and his lover decided to hold hands and jump to their deaths, knowing that there was no way they'd get out of this alive. It instantly conjures images of the couple who leapt from one of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11; or of the folks who must have jumped into a frigid watery grave when the Titanic was sinking.
And then there's the preacher who later professes the fire to be an act of God, punishment against "those people" who lived in sin by making up stories and performing for others. (In real life, the Richmond Theater was replaced by a church, and public performances were, for years afterward, a crime.) Religious zealots who blame massive tragedies on perceived evil-doers—that's not still relevant at all, is it? (Here's pointing a finger at you, Pat Robertson.)
If all this sounds like a downer, it's not. Chapman has sprinkled humor throughout a well-balanced and tight hour-long script, such as a hilarious scene with a patron (the always-engaging Mack) who riffs on the theater's squeaky chairs. (The fact that the chairs actually squeak with her every move is a theatrical marvel in itself.)
Chapman based his words on interviews conducted with survivors of the fire in an unpublished 19th century manuscript. With the characters who were victims in this story, he, of course, speculates on their thoughts, and creates lovely, lyrical dialogue for them (and the others) to speak. Engel's ensemble is up for the challenge. The actors all work in unison and embolden the script with grit, texture, candor and beauty.
The images evoked throughout—of swirling flames, lofty musical notes, the playwright's word—are like love letters to the theater.
One of the few theater types who isn't mentioned in this story is a critic. Knowing us, the critic would have sat on the aisle and bolted out of the building first, thinking only of himself. Then again, had The Bleeding Nun been half as fresh and exciting as Volume of Smoke, perhaps he would've sat there, entranced by the magic of theater, oblivious to the chaos around.