Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Garret Life

The state of tonight's unions were anything but smooth sailing.

An out of town friend called after she finished a work meeting, wanting to meet me for a drink. I had limited time because of plans to see a play, but we settled on Graffiato for a quickie.

Sitting there with a glass of Prosecco, the bartenders began to feel sorry for me after a while, unsure if my friend was going to show up or not. Finally, she walked in, only to inform me there was nowhere to park and would I come help her find a place, making for a delayed union.

A parking space was easily found but by that time, we had barely 45 minutes to chat. We might have had more, but we were too busy stuffing our faces with crack-like ciambellas - mozzarella-stuffed doughnut holes with pepperoni sauce- and a pizzette of broccolini, cherry tomatoes and Provolone to talk as much as we could have.

Promptly at 6:25, I said goodnight and went the three blocks home to meet another friend for the play. She wasn't there, there was no message from her and I was stumped. Should I stay or should I go?

I would up waiting until the last possible minute before heading down to Monumental Church for a reenactment of the plays that had been performed that night in 1811 when the theater caught fire and 72 people perished.

Bad as that tragedy was, just as great was that theater was not produced in Richmond for nearly ten years afterwards. Henley Street/Richmond Shakespeare were putting on the two plays tonight in tribute to that evening and as part of their historical play reading series.

Despite (or perhaps because of) my last minute arrival, I snagged two seats in the second row pew, keeping an eye out for my friend. I was surprised to see that some attendees had arrived in period attire, looking very elegant, but also a sober reminder that 19th century female clothing would not have lent itself well to a fast getaway (perhaps the reason 54 women died and only 18 men).

The artistic director let us know that the room had challenging acoustics and difficult sight lines (and reminded us to keep the center pew doors shut), much as the original space had and encouraged people to move around if need be to hear better. The actors projected beautifully, but the domed space had a decided echo.

The first play, "The Father, or Family Feuds," was a melodrama full of dramatic pauses ("Confusion!") and over-wrought sentimentality dealing with class distinctions (poor people lived in 5th floor garrets) and how they have no regard when it comes to matters of the heart.

During the intermission, many attendees used the time to read signage about Monumental Church and photograph it, but since I'd gone on a tour of it a couple years ago, I stayed put until the play resumed, thinking it was a shame tonight's union with my play-loving friend had not come to be.

The second play, "Raymond and Agnes, or The Bleeding Nun" was the opposite of a melodrama, with the comedy very broad (bad guys played by girls using their fingers to simulate mustaches because, as we all know, bad guys always have them) but consistently hilarious.

When two male characters are heading off into the woods, they bob along, the hero galloping as if on his horse and his manservant making the appropriate clopping noises as he does so.

Favorite line: "Converse with the ladies does improve a man." You see, gentlemen, you've known that bit of wisdom since at least 1811.

Shortly after act two began, the actor playing the hero stops short and calls out, "The house is on fire!" and the play is over for tonight's audience at the same juncture it was the night of the disaster, except without the heartache and trauma.

I have to admit, as cool as it was to sit in the space where the plays originally took place (and over top of the crypt that holds many of those bodies), I couldn't quell a little, nagging worry that something bad might happen to the modern audience tonight.

Fortunately, it did not.

Leaving Monumental Church, the temperature had dropped and the wind had picked up as I crossed Broad Street to retrieve my car and make tracks for Balliceaux.

I admit, given the cold and wind, I briefly considered just going home instead, but then I'd have missed this new project by some of the best musicians in town.

Playing tonight was Plush Dagger, which meant nothing to me but the sextet's members' names were all familiar except one, so I at least knew there'd be a lot of talent onstage.

They'd just started when I walked in and the band included drums, upright bass, two trombones, sax and trumpet and they were already locked in a groove. The room was almost exclusively men, including several jazz musicians and a table that appeared to be VCU jazz studies students bobbing their heads and discussing the music earnestly in low voices.

Mixing it up with some original material by drummer Scott Clark ("Stitch," "Purple, Yellow, Green") along with new arrangements of songs such as Fred Henderson's "Little Fox Run," the band kept it tight with lots of extended soloing and seamless transitions back to full band.

"This is our response to the State of the Union," one trombonist said before they did a song called "Plush Dagger" but only after clarifying that it was also the band name. Playing, every one of them looked fully in the moment.

And isn't that how you want everyone in a union to be, fully engaged and committed to being there? Oh, wait, maybe that's just my idea of union bliss. Responses welcome.

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