When The Phoenix Theatre Burned The House Down

The 1996 staging of Love! Valour! Compassion! that prompted protests, but went on to become the Phoenix’s longest-running show.

When Ricardo Melendez looked out from his dressing room window on opening night of Love! Valour! Compassion! at the Phoenix Theatre on February 15, 1996, he saw a line of people that stretched around the corner of the building, which was then a former church off Mass Ave. “I wasn’t sure if they were protesters, or people waiting to get in,” says Melendez, a star of the play—one of the city’s first with nudity.

Before the show, which was the Midwest premiere of Terrence McNally’s Tony-winning drama, the late Bryan Fonseca, the play’s director and founder of the Phoenix, huddled with the cast of eight men backstage. “He told us the police were outside, and to have our IDs ready in case we were arrested,” says Melendez. “We were like, What?” Fonseca also said he had hired a lawyer, who was waiting in the wings should things get out of hand.

So why were people reaching for the smelling salts? The play was about the AIDS crisis, and was revelatory in the way it treated homosexuality as unremarkable— including a scene in which all eight actors, who play gay friends vacationing at a lakeside cottage in Dutchess County, New York, strip down and go skinny-dipping. Like many of the men, it was Melendez’s first time performing naked. “We rehearsed fully clothed until the final dress rehearsal,” he says. “Then Bryan was just like, ‘OK, guys, we have to do this so opening night won’t be awkward.’”

The production was extended twice and sold out nearly every performance in its nearly two-and-a-half-month run, making it the longest-running show in the Phoenix’s then-13-year history. “(Fonseca) was groundbreaking in Indy because he’d announce half-seasons so he could get the most recent shows,” says Melendez, now artistic director of Virginia Ballet Theater. “People drove from places like Detroit and St. Louis to see Love! Valour! Compassion!

For Stephen Hollenbeck, the costume designer who made eight man-sized tutus for the production after a trip to JoAnn Fabric and some help from a friend at a ballet company, the play was personal. “The cast was very close,” says Hollenbeck, and they all grieved when one of the actors, Michael Klass, who had been sick during the production, died of AIDS within the year.

Fonseca and McNally, the playwright, both died this year of complications from the coronavirus: Fonseca in September at age 69, McNally in March at age 81. Both went out true to form; for Fonseca, that meant staging bold work audiences couldn’t find anywhere else in the city (the last show his Fonseca Theater did was an outdoor production of Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies in August). “Bryan was always a visionary,” says Melendez. “Doing that show in 1996 was a big step forward.”