The Blue Raccoon

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Shows Go On:
Firehouse, Sol Cooper, Library of Virginia

The Puzzling Harry Kollatz: "No Resist'ance" by Amie Oliver, conte crayon, acrylic, wood puzzle. Image by Amie O.
Yesterday night I attended the opening performance of the Firehouse Theatre Project's Festival of New American Plays, which you can read about here. Thank you Style Weekly and Mary Burruss. Go theater art!

These are staged readings of two plays chosen from some 200 submissions to the Firehouse from a nationwide call for entries. I was one of several readers who this summer sussed through piles of these playscripts-- I wasn't fortunate to have read either of the two up for public view this weekend. Here, audiences become critics during after-show talk backs with the directors and performers. For previous years, we've had the playwrights available, too, but for various reasons that vital part didn't work out this time. [The Firehouse wants and needs an underwriting sponsor for this signature event, this way the playwrights could be brought in without any loss to their wallet or time -- anyone out there listening?]

Staged readings can be some of the more intriguing theater you'll experience. When done well what you're really seeing is an open rehearsal. Actors have scripts in hands (though this group was on the verge of not needing them) and there is minimal movement and suggested sets and props. What we're focusing on is the text and the meanings. You are making discoveries in the work often at the same time as the performers.

First up was Richard Willett's Tiny Bubbles. The ebullient title doesn't convey the underlying seriousness in this snap crackle pop piece. I enjoyed the characters and the wit of the writing. In brief, two gay roommates, one an imbiber of gin martinis and the other trying to get off the sauce. But that's just the surface of a piece that examines the delusions and illusions we keep in order to function; the difficulty of altering personal behavior and the challenge confronted by actual change. Plus, there's loads of movie trivia and though I got bellylaughs out of some of the inside cinema references, a few in the under-40 audience received the essence of the meaning, but not the intention. Such is the plesaure and frustration of ....getting old --and storing up a lifetime of arcane popular culture knowledge.

The cast was well-directed by Christopher Shorr, who is no stranger to these sorts of things, and he chose his actors well. The actors are Kirk Morton, known to Swift Creek Mill Playhouse and Triangle Players audiences, who became the gin-swilling Danny McKenna; Shon Stacy, also a Triangle alum, who is Danny's roomie Kirk Wesson; Jeanie Rule (active here, and last seen on the Firehouse stage in the out-of-New York try-out of Bill C. Davis' Austin's Bridge) who made a convincing Reverend Mother in a recurring dream of Danny's; and Abigail, played with delight and poignancy by Jen Hines-Hall, of whom I hope to see more; and Adam Mincks who portrayed three roles including a hip Rat Pack-like bartender in another one of Danny's repeating visions.

Despite the raw January weather, there was a good crowd--and an engaged one--and about half stayed for the talk back following. A good time. Warning: if you're trying to curb your martinis, either do or do not see this show. You'll either want one soon as possible, or not ever again.

Jamgochian, Interrupted

For the billion-eyed audience that got left on a cliff-hanger regarding the Neverbuilt Virginia exhibit, I continue. Image above is of Haigh Jamgochian's proposed and never constructed Spiral Tower, first for downtown Richmond where this structure would've been a landmark building the likes of which the skyline here doesn't possess, then later for Chippenham Parkway and Jahnke Road, which would've been interesting, too. Amie snagged this picture.

We left off with the also unbuilt Treehouse apartments or condos, that led to the Markel Building. Jamgochian's first mushroom-style achitectural proposal, designed with the idea that the Markel brothers were willing to write a check of with six figures, remains a wonderful design. Thing was, as often happens in architecture, the clients chose instead to back off their first price--perhaps they got skittish--and within weeks Hike had to reconfigure the entire thing.

The image here is from CoredesatChikai's photos.

He says he was inspired by a baked potato wrapped in aluminum foil that was served to him at an architect's conference at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I can imagine his thoughts soaring as the steam rose. His radical re-realization gave to Richmond the Birthday Cake/Jiffy Pop/Flintstones-Jetsons/UFO Markel Building, now the Enterprise Center, and landmarked by Henrico County.

[Amie and I attended the landmarking event and it was like a scene out of Fellini; including a Marine color guard with bagpipes marching out of a mist and over the hillside and dale in front of the building, and because a slight mist had started, black umbrellas popped up; and Jamgochian sharing the podium with the surviving engineers and electricians who assisted him in the construction of his remarkable building]

Hike used a giant role of aluminum foil mounted on a flatbed truck to wrap his building and, he told me some years ago, with a 43 cents of nails bought from Pleasant's Hardware, bashed the metal and hammered the stuff into place. Hike says this was to give it greater tensile strength; but the years since 1966 have added other dents and holes, some patched with cartoon-like bandaids.

The building sits upon boulder-textured concrete stilts--again taking into consideration Jordan's Branch Creek that flooded in heavy rain. Before the Markel was hemmed in by lesser buildings--allowed to lax zoning--the building sat in green field as though interstellar pilots chose to land there. The curving interior corridors remind me of those depicted in the

The Markel was completed the year both Star Trek and Mission: Impossible premiered, and Lost In Space (whose Jupiter II the Markel bears passing resemblance) was already on. This was at the height of UFO sightings and media attention to space exploration. James Bond and Matt Helm were also popular film protagonists. The building has always looked to me like the headquarters either of the secret good-buy espionage agents, or the mad scientist who wants to take over the world, both popular themes in Cold War/Space Race period culture.

Jamgochian enjoyed international publicity following the Markel building, then one day his phone rang and on the other end was Howard Hughes. Not the multi-millionaire, but a Richmond used car king who fashioned himself as "Mad Mad Dapper Dan" and hawked his wares using the catch-phrase, "I'd give'em away but my wife won't let me." He was fastidious about his appearance and possessed a great head of slick black hair that during his life went from dark to grey, but like Gibraltar, never changed. Growing up in Richmond his visage regarded me from city buses and I thought he looked like cross between Tennessee Ernie Ford and Ernie Kovacs. He also enjoyed living large and playing poker.

Once Hike recovered from the shock of his non-call from the un-Howard Hughes, the car dealer said he wanted something "out of this world" for his wife Ruby and their three daughters. The architect spoke before he thought, replying, "How about like the Gemini shot, something in space?" Dapper loved the idea--but now Hike had to deliver. What he came up with for Cherokee Road, and a splendid vista of the river, was the Half Moon House.

Dapper's clientele tended toward the... genteel, and, so I was told by some old time Richmonders at the Library of Virginia opening, he would sell cars and also reposses them--garnering a certain enmity from former patrons. His house for that reason was set way off the road without trees around, because he wanted clear lines of sight. The architect sheathed the house in crumpled copper that would with years of oxidation turn green like moss on river rocks.

The startling shape refers also to car fins and cat eye signal lights. The roof overhanging the river-facing glass wall, as critic Ed Slipek Jr. pointed out, resembled the smile of a persuasive used car salesman. It could also be interpreted as the front grille of one of those bi, chrome-covered automotive behemoths that cheap gas and U.S. steel made possible. Jamgochian's design afforded privacy from the outside and for the kidney-shaped pool on a step-down terrace.

The house seemed larger than its 3,834 square feet and 11 rooms.

A large open entertaining area, fronting the river and pool, comprised part of the ultimate Spage Age Bachelor’s Pad, perhaps more hip than Dapper ever could've been. In old pictures, one can almost hear the martini glasses clinking and Dean Martin on the Zenith console.

Alas, however, the Half Moon has gone into full eclipse. About two years ago, following deliberate demolition by neglect, Chesterfield County allowed this singular house to be destroyed and replaced by someone's ego project.

This image, (and others I'll put up soon) was taken a few months before the Half Moon was obliterated. Here's terrace, with sweeping roof overhang, windows, and steps leading to the pool. Then, the damaged interior, stripped of its sleek neo-retro appointments, and the terrace with the pool.

Dapper got such a great view of the river because of his having ripped out a screen of trees. A-hem. At least he didn't build some brick-facaded Colonial Revival or Tuderbethan scheit on steroids that hurts the eyes to look at because the "designers" are trying to please clients who want the house to resemble another authentic structure that is older and added onto. They say imiatation is flattery, but in terms of architecture around Richmond, it's instead proved fatuous. What we have girding the city along the shoals of the cul-de-sac archipelagoes are, to borrow a phrase from our novelist James Branch Cabell, perjuries against architecture.

One of the worst things to happen to Richmond's built environment was the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, 50 miles east; and crass interpretations of Modernism. One infected the sensibilities of the city so that those of means, and those who wanted to live and work in buildings that resembled the class a few rungs above, decided to imulate Williamsburg's restored taverns and public buildings.

Richmond and its vicinity thus has strip malls anchored by stores that look like an oversized Capitol Building and office parks with too-big versions of the Wythe House and the Raleigh Tavern. Richmond rejected the contemporary but also embraced the concept in the characteristic muddle-headed manner for which the city is known. These recreations of the Colonial era are post modern tributes; they aren't the things, but about the things they are supposed to represent, and therefore mean nothing except, well, comfort of recognition as opposed to the shock of the new.

One of the greatest examples of this in midtown is the giant replica of the Williamsburg Inn that became the Ethyl neé NewMarket Corporation's international headquarters.

The building was alledged to have been built to honor the Benjamin Latrobe-inspired mansion built for Colonel Robert Gamble, the Grey Castle [see Historic Virginia Homes and Churches by Robert Alexander Lancaster, image, via Google Books] This insult added to the injury of the demolition of the astonishing Pratt's Castle, which next to the State Capitol, was perhaps the most photographed piece of architecture in Richmond and outlived the Gamble house by several decades.

Pratt's, built around 1853 by an eccentric photographer/architect/landscape designer, had undergone some depredations, fire being one, but could've been rescued. Preservationist urging for the uniques building's salvation got the blunt response of: you want the place so bad, you ante up for the removal to somewhere else. This is a building, by the way, from the tower of which the burnt district of Richmond was recorded by photographic panorama in April 1865.

Ethyl stated there'd be an historic marker and note made of the castle's presence/absence, but this the firm failed to accomplish. Ethyl was foremost in preserving the vestiges of Tredegar Iron Works, though the company also filled in the Intermediate Turning Basin of the James River Kanawha Canal, and held up renovations of the canal while down stream Reynolds Metals restored the few locks adjoining its property.

Fact is, having given tours of the city, out of town visitors think Ethyl's big white house is the Governor's Mansion or the Capitol. May as well.

During the unfortunate 1960s-1970s came Modernism and the plans to make Richmond Brasilia-on-the-James. The Library of Viriginia exhibit gives us glimpses of the utter horrors planned for the Capitol, including moving the entire seat of government to near western Henrico County. You just have to see it to believe. Out of this wrong headed urban renewal mishigas came our waffle iron of a City Hall, the Coliseum and the wind-swept plaza around the perimeter, and the Project One office building.

Jamgochian offered his first Markel Building idea for a new City Hall in 1969, thinking the undulant, open mushroom could be used as the formal and reception areas, with a tower behind, like the United Nations Secretariat. That went nowhere, either.

After the Half Moon House came no second act for Jamgochian. I did the first profile of him in years in the mid-1990s and included him and the Markel in a play, The Persistence of Memory, about the 1966 attempt to place a Salvador Dalí statue on Monument Avenue. A that time, traffic engineers wanted to shunt the statues aside, and make the avenue four lanes. Another bullet dodged.

So it was wonderful to see Hike, still with a full head of white hair, though in a wheelchair and recuperating from recent surgery. He still flirts with women and gets a gleam in his eye talking about his various ideas. When I asked him about the spiral building's unique fire escapes--tubes wrapped around the building--and how people would stop at the bottom he explained that the tubes took a dip, like a child's water slide, that would ease the acceleration. "You'd just walk out," he said, grinning. Hike received bad burns in a house fire years ago and this made him quite conscious of getting trapped in a high rise. [Amie O. image from exhibit]

I speculated to one of those at the opening of the exhibition that wherever the Spiral Tower had been built in Richmond, that today there'd be ultimate sports competitions for charity to see who could gain the greatest acceleration when sliding through the escape tunnels. I could see the posters in my head: "DO THE TUBE." The demonstration would show up on late night news cast clips. There'd be regular winners who'd need to figure out ways to go faster. And they'd interview Hike, surrounded by pretty girls in their Tube Speed Suits and he'd be smiling, and laughing, delighted.

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At 2:18 PM, Blogger Robin Davis said...

I love what you have written about my dear visionary friend, "Jam". I was wondering if you knew that he has Asperger's Syndrome? (a type of Autism)Many Richmonder's do not hence he has been known to be labeled "quirky" and "eccentric". His designs were way ahead of his time and he is still coming up with the most amazing ideas, even at age 86!

At 12:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's sad there appears to be very little photographic record of "Half Moon"--Dominic Carpin


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