The Blue Raccoon

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Firehouse Gets Style Appreciation
On trying to make art and theater in Richmond, Virginia

The Ensemble: Lisa Kotula, Jude Fageas, Scott Wichmann, Alia Basharat

Style Weekly's reviewer Mary Burruss gave the Firehouse a positive mention in this week's issue, on stands now, as they say.

Mary also interviewed TheatreIV/Barksdale's Bruce Miller about the recent kerfluffle about the Barksdale's production of The Little Dog Laughed and even TheatreIV's Peter Pan. How strange it is, to me, seeing a kind of role reversal. The Firehouse has had people naked on its stage, and produced plenty of plays with strong language.

Now, the Firehouse has on its boards a musical revue with short plays, directed by and featuring Scott Wichmann, that may have a total of four PG-13 words involved, no nudity, and one slinky spangly outfit with a pleated skirt. And Alia Basharat is a red head, with a powerful voice. She also wears the pleated skirt. There's also a clown nose and wig--Lisa Kotula dons those--and some frightening clown make up--Alia puts that on. A scary Ferris Wheel ride is simulated, with Scott and Lisa. And some rap is also presented by Jude that may jar some people, though the words have an ultimate positive message. And, among my favorites, a musical number in which the ensemble wears hats.

I recall how, way back in 1976, when what was then known as Virginia Museum Theatre presented Romulus Linney's Childe Byron and the word "damn" and caused a ruckus. Similarly, in Peter Pan the word "ass" is used, in reference to, well, a donkey. Horrors!

Which is why there wasn't a professional presentation of, for example, Glengarry Glen Ross until the Firehouse gave it in 2002 (!) That show did quite well, as did I Am My Own Wife, which also featured Scott Wichmann, and he performed most of it in a black dress. And between them both was Hedwig and The Angry Inch. And I could go on.

When Edward Albee visited the Firehouse a few years ago, he said in his remarks that it is the duty of a little theater like ours to not produce art that people think they want to see, but give them art they should see. So, the newspaper fulminated a few days later that Albee was an elitist who just wanted to insult people. Sigh.

I would argue, however, about what is more elitist than expecting all facets of art to resemble nothing more than watered-down entertainments that require no more thought or consideration that turning on the television and curling up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn? Sometimes, of course, this is what we want; to enjoy something, and sometimes what we seek is comfortable, reassuring or at least, familiar. And that's fine, but should we live in a city where that kind of theater (or art) was the only thing offered, it'd be like living where there's only one television station to watch, or one movie theater that only showed musicals.

Sure, we've had a few people walk out of shows in our 15 years. But mostly, they know what they're getting because the Firehouse is the Firehouse. And there is a certain amount of self-responsibility here; read the season brochure, for example, or a review. Some people in Richmond--and I really remember this from attending TheatreVirginia productions--would come to the show just so they could walk out in a cloud of indignation. That the Barksdale produced The Little Dog Laughed is to the theater's credit. But they're a big house, with overhead we don't have, and reactions like this in Richmond, Virginia, makes producing theater--or art--a challenge. Sometimes it feels like cultural mission work. But, we keep doing it because, well. Somebody has to.

The contrary view isn't new. In 1909, Richmond novelist James Branch Cabell's The Cords of Vanity: A Comedy of Shirking was published by Doubleday. He'd intended to write a droll comedy of manners, as though Oscar Wilde was transferred to Williamsburg and Richmond, which in the book are rechristened Fairhaven and Lichfield.

At one point, the protagonist, Robert Townsend -- a snob, though on occasion amusing-- and his mentor, the novelist John Charteris, are attending a production of Romeo and Juliet at Fairhaven's Willoughby Hall. Afterward they encounter Mrs. Adrian Rabbet, wife of Fairhaven's rector. "A most enjoyable performance," Charteris says, not thinking anybody would say different. Not so, with Mrs. Rabbet.

"Such a sad play," she chirped, "and, do you know, I am afraid it is rather demoralizing in its effects on young people. No, of course, I didn't think of bringing the children, Mr. Charteris --Shakespeare's language is not always sufficiently obscure, you know, to make that safe. And besides, as I often say to Mr. Rabbet, it is sad to think of our greatest dramatist having been a drinking man. It quite depressed me all through the play of him hobnobbing with Dr. Johnson at the Tabard Inn, and making such irregular marriages, and stealing sheep--or was it sheep, now?"
I said that, as I remembered, it was a fox, which he hid under his coat, until the beast bit him.
"Well, at any rate, it was something extremely deplorable and characteristic of a genius, and I quite feel for his wife." Mrs. Rabbet sighed, and endeavored, I think, to recollect whether it was Ingomar or Spartacus that Shakespeare wrote. "However," she concluded, "they play Ten Nights in a Barroom on Thursday, and I shall certainly bring the children then, for I am always glad for them to see a really moral and instructive drama. And that reminds me! I absolutely must tell you what Tom said about actors the other day --"
And she did....Mrs. Rabbet said toward the end that it was a most enjoyable chat, although to me it appeared to partake rather of the nature of a monologue. It consumed perhaps a half hour; and when we two at last relinguished Mrs. Rabbet to her husband's charge, it was with the feeling not altogether unakin to relief."

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