Standing on stage of the Richmond Theatre, Hopkins Robertson was mesmerized by the burning pieces of canvas floating to the floor.
It was the night after Christmas, 1811, and small fires were common to the theater. But when the actor saw flames rip through the theater’s fly space, he knew just how deadly this one could be.
“The house is on fire!” he shouted, and the roof turned to flame. The theater’s 598 patrons rushed for the few exits, trampling many. The lone, narrow staircase to the box seats collapsed, trapping upper-crust theatergoers. The tragedy claimed the lives of 72 and made international headlines.
No theater was performed in Richmond for nearly a decade.
On Jan. 20, Richmond Shakespeare and Henley Street Theatre will stage the same playbill of that calamitous evening at Monumental Church, which was built on the spot and houses the dead in its crypt. It’s part of the joint theater company’s Historical Play Reading Series, featuring staged readings of Denis Diderot’s “The Father, or Family Feuds” and Matthew Gregory Lewis’ “Raymond and Agnes, or the Bleeding Nun.”
“It was described as the worst urban disaster of the time in 1811,” says Jan Powell, artistic director of Richmond Shakespeare and Henley Street. “We wanted to do a series of plays that were significant to the society that they were in.”
“The Father, or Family Feuds” follows a young man who suffers the misfortune of falling in love with someone below his station. “Raymond and Agnes, or the Bleeding Nun” is a short, comic melodrama that Powell compares to a Mel Brooks comedy. Both plays will use the same cast working in repertory, and will re-create the original actors’ response to the theater going up in flames. Like the doomed audience of two centuries ago, modern theatergoers won’t get to see how the second play ends.
“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.”
A panel of experts will take questions after the production, led by Meredith Henne Baker, author of “The Richmond Theatre Fire.” According to Baker, the fire was a catalyst for religious change in Virginia. Following the Revolutionary War, there was a major drop-off in Episcopal church attendance, but the fire and the Second Great Awakening brought many people back to the pews.
The first play in the series was Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros’ terror-themed “Omnium Gatherum,” performed on Sept. 11. In March the theater company will stage Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu Roi” at the Byrd Theatre to coincide with the French Film Festival. First staged in 1896, the play barely made it through a single performance before rioting broke out. The play overturned conventions of its day, predating surrealism and theatre of the absurd, and its main character is sometimes referred to as King Turd.
“It’s wild, it’s scatological, and it’s very interesting to know that this was the cutting-edge art form around the turn of the century in Europe,” Powell says.
Richmond Shakespeare and Henley Street will stage “Our American Cousin” on April 15 for the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Like “Raymond and Agnes,” the theater company will interrupt the play to re-enact history. There will be a panel discussion following the show led by Lincoln scholar and University of Richmond President Ed Ayers.
“It’s interesting to me that both tragedies happened during a play that is intended to be a comedy,” Powell says. “To think that juxtaposition between the humor of the play and the seriousness of the events that interrupted the play is highly dramatic and very moving.”
The company’s next full production is February’s “The Lion in Winter,” centering on King Henry II of England and his dysfunctional family as they wrestle over who will wear the crown next. The play will be the first full theatrical production staged at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Leslie Cheek Theatre since TheatreVirginia closed its doors in 2002.
“It’s a brilliant, brilliant script that will have people laughing and crying by turns, and it has some of the best one-liners in 20th-century American theater,” Powell says. “It’s a bit like ‘Arrested Development’ with crowns and swords.” S
Richmond Shakespeare and Henley Street Theatre’s “The Father, or Family Feuds” and “Raymond and Agnes, or the Bleeding Nun” will be staged Jan. 20 at 7 p.m. at Monumental Church, 1224 E. Broad St. “The Lion in Winter” runs Feb. 5-28 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Leslie Cheek Theater, 200 N. Boulevard. For information and tickets, visit henleystreettheatre.org.