Historic Night Revisited: Henley Street Theater Performance at Monumental Church

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Imagine yourself in a box seat hearing the lines from “Our American Cousin” performed at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. Are you sitting forward, listening with gravity (and nagging fear), knowing that these lines were some of the last words that Abraham Lincoln would ever hear?

That thrill is the kind of feeling over 200 Richmond theatergoers experienced last week, on Tuesday, January 20th, when the Henley Street Theater performed two shows in Richmond –“The Father, or Family Feuds” by Diderot and the melodrama “Raymond and Agnes, or the Bleeding Nun.” These shows together have not been performed on a Richmond stage in 200 years–since the night of the deadly Richmond Theater fire on December 26th, 1811. To add to the historical interest, the event was held at Monumental Church, the memorial to the Theater fire victims, which was built directly over the grounds of the old Richmond Theater and the crypt which contains the remains of the 72 victims. 

This performance, which was well attended by over 200 people, was part of a historic play reading series, and the plays were abridged (the originals were hours long!) and re-enacted with minimal props and scenery. (You may hear some of the performance here: WVTF NPR Charlottesville’s Arts and Culture beat.)

WVFT Charlottesville, Actress Mollie Ort

Jacquie O’Connor, managing director of Henley Street/Richmond Shakespeare described in Richmond Magazine how the company chose to conclude the performance: “The readings will actually stop at the exact same place that the people in the Richmond Theatre noticed the fire back in 1811.” This was surprisingly moving. Shortly into the second act, the lights began to turn red, one by one. The players slowly walked to the front of the stage and stood in silence. The actor playing the part Hopkins Robertson played in 1811 stood in disbelief, like Robertson had, and said in amazement and horror, “The theater is on fire!” Curtain.

Style Weekly reported: “We’re trying to make that moment as historically accurate as possible,” says Melissa Rayford, who directs both plays. “It gives me chills to think about it, and how all those people who perished in the fire will be underneath our feet and haven’t heard those words since it happened in 1811.”

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I was honored to be part of the panel discussion which followed the show, along with the Library of Virginia’s Gregg Kimball, Olivier Delers of the University of Richmond, Emily Davis of Historic Richmond, staged reading director Melissa Rayford and the cast. (Virginia audiences have the best questions.)

And what about the plays? The content was a bit beside the point, at least for me, and it was very melodramatic–lots of “I shall perish with love!” sorts of discourses and maudlin characters. The company absolutely made the best of it, though, and the audience sat rapt, erupting in laughter and applauding enthusiastically for the clever and engaging performers. I was talking afterward with Harry Kollatz, who does a fine one-man performance about the night of the fire, and he made the point that the upstairs/downstairs nature of the plots, with spying servants and nobles marrying below their station was no more far-fetched and goofy than your average episode of “Downton Abbey!” True.

Thank you, Henley Street Theatre, Historic Richmond Foundation, and all audience members (especially those from the Virginia Regency Society who came in historically accurate garb!) for making this a historic night to remember. I was so grateful for the opportunity to share in the experience and hear these readings. Remembering with empathy the actual people behind any disaster, historic or current, is always a challenge. This production called to mind not only that December night–a turning point in Virginia history–but also the human beings present that evening: the actors who trod the boards and the audience in their box seats, leaning forward to hear Diderot’s lines in their last night on earth.

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