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theater: Rising From the Ashes

A new theater company is ready to erase the curse of a very old theater.


The average theatergoer is becoming older, and independent films attract the younger audiences repelled by the high cost of theater tickets.

Also, the most talented artists are beginning to avoid the stage altogether. Until recently, anyone interested in the performing arts might join a small local stage company as a first step. Now, such a person is more likely to purchase an inexpensive digital camcorder, pinch some film-editing software from the Internet and start making short movies.

Nonetheless, the prospects for starting a new company in Richmond are nowhere near a historical low.

On Dec. 26, 1811, hundreds of people at the Richmond Theatre were watching a pantomime called "The Bleeding Nun." At the conclusion of the first act, the stage manager was attempting to clear the chandelier when it ignited the scenery. More than 100 people, including Virginia's governor, perished in the flames. Monumental Church was built on the site to memorialize the tragedy. The ashes of 72 of the victims are buried in a crypt in the basement.

In the months and years to follow, religious leaders across the country pointed to the fire as a sign that live theater was sinful. The pressure was still intense in 1819 when the director of a Richmond theater company that ran out of money attributed its demise to "the continual attack upon the theater by the local clergy."

Even if he is not likely to be accused of doing the devil's work, Essential Theatre's artistic director, Daniel Moore, is coping with problems typical for a contemporary theater company. To succeed, Essential must raise money, create a functioning board and generate interest in short order.

There have been some bumps along the way. Essential's co-founder, Christopher Dunn, has already left the company following a dispute about responsibilities.

And the most imposing problem has been finding a place to perform.

Fortunately for Essential, the Historic Richmond Foundation is engaged in a $2 million renovation of Monumental Church and was looking for ways to use the building once it is completed. Theater could return to the site of the 1811 fire as early as next January.

From acoustics to set design, Monumental Church presents a number of challenges for theatrical productions. Moore asked local light-designer David Mclain and set designer Ron Keller to look at the space. They assured him that there were no technical issues that couldn't be overcome. According to Moore, Essential will hang lighting trees from the balcony and may construct a temporary stage in front of the pews.

Moore seems unconcerned that edgier material might provoke a reaction from the public because of the location. The church was deconsecrated decades ago, and Moore says the HRF has assured him that they won't intervene in the selection of scripts unless something is clearly out of bounds. But he's conscious that this isn't just a building. "We're taking on another character," he says.

Meanwhile, Essential Theatre has to hang around long enough to take up residence in Monumental. For the first show, Moore discovered a script on the Internet written by actor Jeff Daniels of "Dumb and Dumber" fame.

"Boom Town" is the kind of gritty play that actors often create when they turn to playwriting. The story isn't particularly complex, but it's full of raw conflict, overlapping dialogue and props that are slammed at an alarming rate. Best of all for a budget-conscious new company, the script only requires three actors and a single set.

Stuart (David Bridgewater) and Angela (Melissa Johnston Price) have seen better days. When Frank (John Moon) arrives to deliver bad news about their loan, it's clear that both their business and marriage have failed. It isn't long before all three characters are at each other's throat.

Price gets many of the juicier lines. "I might be cheating but at least I'm cheating up." But it is Bridgewater, who dominates the play with an explosive mixture of jabs, taunts and actual physical violence. No actor in Richmond does anger like Bridgewater, and in the play's final few moments, the audience holds its collective breath as the tension spikes to uncomfortable levels.

The script could stand some tempering here and there. And once you start breathing again, the ending might seem contrived if you stop to think about it. But in all other respects, this is a professional and well-groomed show.

Czerton Kim's excellent kitchen includes pickled cabinetry, yellowed wallpaper and believable mismatched details. Lee Mack's lights are straightforward but elegant.

At one point during a rehearsal, Moore tells the cast that he buys his eyeglasses off the rack at Pleasants Hardware for a few dollars each. "I'm not paying a hundred and fifty dollars for glasses," he brags. It's the sort of hard-nosed frugality Essential Theatre will need to succeed. With "Boom Town," they're off to a promising start. S

"Boom Town" runs through March 8 at Theatre IV's Little Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. Tickets $10-$15. 344-8040.

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