In the living room of a Stuart Ave home in Richmond’s Fan District, the world’s worst opera singer comes to life… and this unique comedy play heads into its final weekend.
Into the Woods Productions invites you to the living room of a Fan District home for its latest theater production, Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir, starring Gabrielle Maes and Levi Meerovich and directed by Chelsea Burke. A ticket to the show promises a night of heartwarming friendship, over-the-top humor, and the ear-splitting voice of the world’s worst opera singer. You might want to bring some ear plugs.
Gabrielle Maes, founder of Into the Woods, stars as Dame Florence Foster Jenkins from the comfort of home. Maes has transformed the large double living room of her historic Stuart Avenue house into a set for Florence’s private music room, complete with framed portraits of the infamously untalented songstress, marble statuettes, and the obligatory grand piano.
“When you walk in, you really feel that you’re being transported back into a drawing room from the 1920s,” said Maes. The front room can only accommodate an audience of around 40; Levi Meerovich plays Cosme McMoon, Florence’s accompanist, as Maes’s only co-star. It’s sure to be unlike a traditional theater experience. “That’s the feeling,” said Maes. “It’s a truly intimate production.”
This isn’t the first time Maes has opened her home to an audience for the endeavors of her production company. Since Maes founded Into the Woods, she’s produced many theater performances and salon concerts using her own living room floor as a stage.
Into the Woods also puts on Voice Club in Maes’s Stuart Avenue home, an intimate monthly gathering for showcasing any — and truly any — style of vocalized performance. Voice Club has hosted burlesque, flamenco, poetry, spoken word, drag, and stand-up comedy, among other voice-related talents. “It’s a lot of work, having to frequently move and rearrange the furniture,” said Maes. “But the acoustics in my house are great.”
Maes founded Into the Woods in an attempt to raise industry standards in Richmond by ensuring that performers and artists are paid for their work. “There’s so many talented people here, and such a vibrant music and theater scene,” said Maes. “But the thing is, musicians and artists don’t really get paid. Which seems unusual to me, because I’ve always lived in places where we do.”
Maes has lived in a lot of places — she grew up in Montreal, studied vocal performance in Jerusalem, lived in Paris and Milan as the mother of five children, and taught at LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore. She has lived and performed in a total of nine different countries, and it was in Malaysia that she first played the role of Dame Florence Foster Jenkins. She won the Boh Cameronian Award for best actor in her performance.
She now takes her award-winning Souvenir performance to the Fan District of Richmond, with an obvious affection for the role. Dame Florence was a wealthy New York City socialite and a dedicated patron to the arts, who then rose to infamy with an opera career of her own in the 1920s. “She was an absolutely horrific singer, and an incredibly eccentric person,” said Maes. “She liked to pose for these things they used to call ‘tableaus,’ but she was rather homely — big boobs, overweight, hook nose — but she didn’t care.”
“She was extremely theatrical and entertaining; she’d get dressed up in wigs and weird hats. People would go watch her sing to laugh at her, and she had no idea they were laughing, so it’s kind of tragic in a way,” said Maes. “But they kept paying to see her perform, and they loved her — her singing was ridiculous, but there was also something so genuine about her.”
Into the Woods’ production of Souvenir focuses on the more innocently heartwarming narrative in Florence’s life: the genuine, platonic love that she shared with her pianist, Cosme, a gay Mexican immigrant. As these are the only two roles billed, the singular drawing-room set of the venue inevitably leaves Florence’s public life up to the audience’s imagination.
Maes asserts that there’s quite a rich story to tell of these two. Cosme accompanied Florence’s vocals for 12 years, from early obscurity to the pinnacle of her career, when she sold out Carnegie Hall. Cosme was not deaf, and therefore well-aware of her glaring lack of talent, and he saw the ridicule that she was so oblivious to. “He tries so desperately to protect her, and they end up becoming very good friends,” said Maes. “It’s a love story, really. It’s very poignant.”
According to Maes, it’s also hysterically funny, with much of the humor derived from Florence’s obliviousness to Cosme’s exaggeratedly obvious homosexuality. “He hints at it constantly throughout the play,” said Maes, “yet she teases him relentlessly about the young ladies.”
Souvenir runs for its final weekend on Stuart Ave. from Thursday, March 5 through Saturday, March 7, with all showings at 8 pm. Once the faux marble statuettes imitating 1920s Manhattan have been traded back for Maes’s everyday living room decor, Voice Club will resume and Into the Woods will be onto planning its next production. And while it’s hard to say what that will be, Maes clearly has an affinity for opera. She directed for Capitol Opera about a year and a half ago, then produced and starred in a fully staged, full-orchestra Handel opera. But she’s also known for hosting plays underground (literally), with 15th-century tavern song concerts taking place in a cave-like building below Pump House Park… so expect the unexpected from Into the Woods.
Top Photo by Wolfcrest Photography