Mar 23, 2007


Saw Clay McLeod Chapman's volume of smoke last night, directed by fellow blogger Isaac Butler with great care and finesse at the lovely 14th Street Y Theatre. Its inspiration is a little-remembered fire in a Richmond, VA theatre in 1811, in which 72 people perished, and on the charred ruins of which Monumental Church was built.

A cast of six, in period clothes on a mostly bare stage, recounts the performance, the fire, and its aftermath from various points of view, from a musician in the pit to bystanders outside who arrived to help; even the voices of the dead get the floor for a few chilling moments.

The resonances with a certain disaster of our lifetime--we hear about victims jumping from higher stories to avoid the blaze, about squabbles over what to build on the site's ashes, about opportunistic judgments about the meaning of the tragedy--are striking, if ultimately not exactly illuminating.

Indeed, despite the beautiful, intent work of Butler and his cast--particularly Daryl Lathon, Brian Silliman, and Molly Wright Stuart--I didn't feel that the show met the storyteller's basic challenge: Why this story, now, told this way? Its well-rendered moments of beauty, terror, and poignance have the inexplicable, riveting power of ghost stories told in a darkened room, but for me these highlights didn't quite overcome the sense that I'd stumbled into a heartfelt funeral for someone I didn't know. Here Isaac makes a better case than the play itself does.

Volume of smoke runs through Apr. 7 at the 14th Street Theater, 344 E. 14th Street (in the Y). (212) 352-3101.

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