In “Dorian Gray,” Richmond theater veteran Billy Christopher Maupin performs a script that he and director Shirley Kagan adapted from Wilde’s 1891 novel, which tells of a dandy’s life of hedonism and callousness, after a Faustian bargain ensures that a portrait, and not he, will age and coarsen. In the stage version, Maupin channels not only the novel’s characters, but a version of Wilde. “While it’s an old classic novel,” Kagan says, “it’s a new way of interpreting it.”
That newness suits the Firehouse, which has emphasized contemporary American plays since launching in 1993. Since the 2015 arrival of Bassin, a former managing director of New York’s celebrated avant-garde troupe the Wooster Group, the Firehouse has programmed more new, multidisciplinary and experimental works, from “Animal Control,” which recently nabbed a major national playwriting honor, to a burlesque tribute to cryptozoology.
Covid-19 forced the company to cancel the last quarter of its 2019-2020 season, including “The Club,” a world-premiere “noir cabaret” co-created by singer Michael Feinstein. About a quarter of the Firehouse’s earned income for the season vanished, according to Bassin. “It was a big hit,” he says.
But he, Kagan and Maupin pressed forward with “Dorian Gray,” the 2020-2021 season opener. Initial rehearsals were held remotely, with Maupin at his base in Kentucky, and Kagan directing via GoToMeeting. Although the online arrangement worked, Maupin says, “It’s hard to have that kind of interplay that you would have in a live rehearsal room.”
Virtual programming is the current trend in U.S. theater, but Bassin says that this show — a novel turned into a public experience — gains by having even a tiny audience physically present, in keeping with state and other guidance. So for each performance of “Dorian Gray,” between two and six tickets were put on sale for in-person theatergoers, a number that allows for social distancing in the Firehouse’s 99-seat theater.
The company has put extensive safety protocols in place, starting with final rehearsals after Maupin arrived in Richmond. Bassin notes that it’s usually desirable to run tech rehearsals with many designers on hand, because sound, light, costume changes and other factors are so interconnected. But for “Dorian Gray,” he arranged for the designers to attend rehearsals one at a time.
Theatergoers will have their temperatures taken before admission to the building, and entrance and exit times will be staggered. Masks will be required, except for Maupin when he’s onstage, and the company has face shields available for audience members who request them. With a projected running time of more than two hours making restroom trips likely, an individual bathroom or bathroom stall, will be assigned to each audience member.
“We’re revising our checklist every day,” says Bassin, who’s staying optimistic. “If you do theater for a while, there is an aspect of it which is rinse-and-repeat: We know how to do that; we send the press release out six weeks before the first performance; the schedule is the schedule,” he says. Now, suddenly, the tried-and-true no longer works. “It’s been sort of a fun and exciting challenge to refigure how you do theater,” he says.
Kagan, too, has adapted. Before covid-19, she had considered planting props and costumes in the audience, for theatergoers to pass to Maupin as he segued between characters. “Obviously, we can’t do that now,” she says, adding that, “We’re trying to keep that spirit alive of bringing the audience in as a partner.” Humor is one way to do that, she notes: A laugh draws performer and theatergoers together in a collaborative moment.
Wilde’s novel glitters with the writer’s signature witticisms, but the tale also has a somber side that might resonate amid national soul searching. Maupin points to the ideas of repentance and reform that surface late in the story.
“Dorian Gray” portrays “this person that went completely down the wrong track, and then at some point — whether he did it well or not — did seek redemption for the things that he was struggling with,” Maupin says. “So there’s definitely some value in that.”
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, Richmond. firehousetheatre.org.
Dates: Through Aug. 1, with performances live-streamed on June 26, July 8, 10, 15 and 17. Check website for latest information, as additional live-streamed performances may be added.
Prices: $30 suggested donation for live performances, which have varying audience capacities, ranging from 2 to 6 people. Live-stream access is pay-what-you-will.